Chinese Defense Minister Wei Fenghe met behind closed doors with his Philippines counterpart in Manila on Friday, on the heels of similar visits to Malaysia and Indonesia, discussing “a range of issues” affecting defense ties, including the South China Sea, the Philippines side said.
Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana welcomed Wei a day after U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo urged Southeast Asian countries to reconsider business deals with 24 Chinese companies and individuals that Washington sanctioned last month for their roles in constructing Beijing’s artificial islands in the South China Sea.
“Secretary Lorenzana and Minister Wei discussed the issue on the South China Sea, how to avoid misunderstanding and to resolve differences amicably,” Lorenzana’s office said in a statement. “Both agreed that peace and stability in the SCS should be maintained.”
The defense leaders also discussed the need to finalize a code of conduct meant to govern actions by all parties with territorial claims in the South China Sea, a vital waterway through which billions of dollars in goods pass yearly. China claims much of the sea as its own.
All claimants agreed in 2002 to work toward a code, but nearly two decades later they have so far failed to come up with a final document setting guidelines on how all parties should behave.
Aside from the Philippines, Asian governments with territorial claims or maritime boundaries overlapping with the sweeping claims of China are Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam. While Indonesia does not regard itself as party to the South China Sea dispute, Beijing claims historic rights to parts of that sea within Indonesia's exclusive economic zone.
In recent years, China has flaunted its claims by setting up airstrips and establishing military installations on islands in the region.
The Philippines, an Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) member that was once a leading voice against China’s claims, has maintained a pro-Beijing stance since President Rodrigo Duterte took office in 2016.
Shortly after Duterte’s election victory, an international tribunal ruled in favor of the Philippines in the South China Sea. Instead of enforcing the ruling, the president has sought closer ties with Beijing.
Notably, the Philippines said earlier this month it won’t cut business ties with the Chinese firms Washington has blacklisted.
The Philippine government said it would work with these Chinese companies because it is in the “national interest” to complete flagship infrastructure projects in the country involving these firms, said Harry Roque, spokesman for President Rodrigo Duterte.
Addressing ASEAN foreign ministers in an online version of their annual forum on Thursday, Pompeo urged their nations to stand up to Chinese state-owned companies that “bully” them.
“Reconsider business dealings with the very state-owned companies that bully ASEAN coastal states in the South China Sea,” the top American diplomat said. “Don’t just speak up, but act. … Don’t let the Chinese Communist Party walk over us and our people.”
On Friday, Lorenza, who recently rebuked China’s claims to the South China Sea as yet another Beijing fabrication, declined to answer questions from the press.
His office did say the two countries had signed guidelines for implementing a 130 million Chinese yuan (U.S. $19 million) grant to the Armed Forces of the Philippines for equipment and humanitarian assistance and disaster response.
Defense analyst and military historian Jose Antonio Custodio of the Institute of Policy, Strategy and Development Studies said Duterte appeared to be balancing concessions to China with interests aligned with long-time military ally the United States.
“He has always been pro-China,” Custodio said. “He works on Beijing’s behalf as it guarantees him political and diplomatic support when it comes to international pressure against him.”
Wei and Indonesian Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto on Tuesday discussed tensions in the South China Sea along with efforts to work together to combat COVID-19.
A day earlier, Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin and Defense Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob welcomed Wei in Kuala Lumpur, but Malaysian officials were tight-lipped about what was discussed.