China’s coast guard chief has arrived in Manila to lead a delegation for tabletop exercises and bilateral talks with their Philippine counterparts aimed at coordinating each other’s operations in the disputed South China Sea, officials said Tuesday.
A marching band greeted Maj. Gen. Wang Zhongcai as he disembarked from the Chinese Coast Guard ship with pennant number 5204, which anchored at the Port of Manila on Monday, in what local authorities had described as an unprecedented visit.
The Philippine Coast Guard later posted Wang’s pictures on Twitter showing him walking on red carpet as he reviewed ceremonial honor guards accompanied by Adm. Joel Garcia, his Filipino counterpart.
“It doesn’t mean that we have to close our doors to China just because we’ve had a rift or resentment in the previous years or months,” Garcia told reporters, referring to recent reports that Filipino fishermen had been harassed by the Chinese ships in the West Philippine Sea, a portion of the South China Sea claimed by Manila.
Wang’s visit, which would last until Friday this week, occurred amid Beijing’s diplomatic tensions with Indonesia over maritime rights during the past three weeks.
“We will push for mechanisms that will ensure the safety of our fishermen,” Garcia said. “It’s not right that they are being harassed by the China Coast Guard or other coast guards using the South China Sea.”
Wang did not issue any statement during his arrival, but the Chinese embassy in Manila said his visit “will be a very good opportunity for both sides to demonstrate goodwill, deepen mutual understanding and trust as well as enhance friendship and cooperation.”
In June last year, Manila filed a diplomatic protest after a Chinese trawler rammed into a Filipino fishing boat near Recto Bank in the disputed sea region, leaving 22 fishermen adrift in the open sea for hours before they were rescued by a Vietnamese ship.
Garcia told reporters that Wang’s visit marked the first time where Chinese and Philippine coast guard officials would “formally sit down and talk to enhance their relationship and establish a smooth coordination” at sea.
“This is the right forum to set the mechanisms for the safety of those using the West Philippine Sea and the South China Sea,” he said.
Duterte critic warns of Beijing’s new diplomatic approach
Meanwhile, Sen. Leila De Lima slammed the Chinese coast guard chief’s visit, saying Philippine officials should be wary of Beijing’s sudden change in its diplomatic approach.
“Imagine our Coast Guard discussing protocols at sea with the very people who regularly intimidate our own fishermen, in our own territory,” De Lima said in a statement issued from Camp Crame, where she has been detained during the past two years over what she said were false drug charges.
‘[President Rodrigo] Duterte gives the best seat at the banquet table to China, while we wait for whatever crumbs they might throw around,” she said.
De Lima has been Duterte’s top critic, and has often questioned the perceived preference the Philippine leader gives to China.
Beijing claims most of the mineral-rich South China Sea, including areas that reach the shores of its smaller neighbors. Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan also have overlapping claims to the maritime region.
Since becoming president three years ago, Duterte has gravitated the Philippines’ foreign policy toward China and Russia, shifting away from its traditional rival the United States, which has been Manila’s military ally during the past seven decades.
Duterte has been less aggressive against Chinese encroachment in the sea, despite a 2016 decision by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague that ruled in favor of Manila in a case against China.
Last week, the Philippine military chief said he would not expect a shooting war with China over the sea dispute, saying it could be resolved diplomatically.