Philippines Welcomes Dialogue with Beijing on South China Sea

Felipe Villamor
170711-PH-minister-1000.jpg Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana (second from right) gestures as he and military chief Eduardo Ano (right) visit Thitu Island in The Spratlys, among the disputed islands in the South China Sea, April 21, 2017.

The Philippines said Tuesday that bilateral ties with China were excellent, almost a year after a United Nations-backed arbitration tribunal ruled in favor of Manila and invalidated Beijing’s expansive claims to the South China Sea.

The two countries were in a dialogue aimed at boosting bilateral cooperation, and had shifted away from an adversarial tone, Philippine presidential spokesman Ernesto Abella told a news conference here.

Abella said the two countries had launched a bilateral consultation mechanism in May about the potentially mineral-rich sea region, in which they pledged their “commitment to cooperate and find ways to strengthen the trust and confidence on issues related to the WPS.”

He was referring to the West Philippine Sea, which is what the government in Manila calls the South China Sea.

“The Philippines and China have reviewed their experience on the West Philippine Sea issue, exchanged views on the current issues of concern to either side, and they have agreed that they will further discuss mutually acceptable approaches to deal with them,” Abella said.

He said the two countries agreed to meet once more in the second half of 2017, but he did not divulge the exact date.

Abella characterized the current ties as excellent.

His statements came as a former national security adviser warned, in an interview with BenarNews, that a militarized Scarborough Shoal under China’s control would be “a game-changer.”

Court of Arbitration junks China’s claims

President Rodrigo Duterte has made it a point to revive bilateral relations with China, which had worsened amid the sea dispute. He has also antagonized China’s rival, the United States, by threatening to cut security cooperation and by insinuating that he was siding with powers closer to shore.

His predecessor, Benigno Aquino III, took Beijing to the Permanent Court of Arbitration in 2013 after Chinese vessels were spotted in Scarborough Shoal, which had for years been a traditional fishing area for Filipinos.

The area, triangular in shape, consists of rocks and shoals and is only about 200 km (125 miles) from the main Philippine island of Luzon.

The court had junked China’s historical claims to the region, and said in effect that no country had sovereign rights over the rocky outcrop, entitling all countries with overlapping claims to use its resources.

China has never recognized the ruling, and criticized it as flawed, putting much of the region on edge over fears the militarily superior Beijing could retaliate.

In May, Duterte deflected criticism that he was going soft on China, saying he told Chinese leader Xi Jinping he wanted to drill in the disputed area following the ruling.

But he claimed Xi responded with a threat of war and countered with an offer to instead work jointly to exploit the area.

Duterte said a war in the sea region would lead to a massacre of Filipino forces, which are inferior to Chinese firepower, and “it will destroy everything.”

China commands 2.2 million active-duty military personnel with 1,385 attack aircraft compared with the Philippines’ 172,000 soldiers and eight fighter jets, according to Global FirePower, which keeps a database comparison of world military strengths.

Likely scenario

Roilo Golez, a former congressman and national security adviser who remains active in security circles, said he believed China was using a combination of “hard power and soft power” to eventually transform Scarborough Shoal into “a huge military complex.”

He said the likely scenario would have China constructing harbors and multipurpose buildings and tourism facilities to hide its military expansion.

“If China is allowed to convert Scarborough Shoal into a military facility, even alone, a militarized Scarborough Shoal would be a game-changer in the South China Sea,” Golez told BenarNews.

If that happens, he suggested, China will eventually dominate the Philippines and neutralize an enhanced military cooperation deal that Manila has signed with its traditional ally, the United States.

“I believe China will make their move here starting around three years from now, with the full operability of their aircraft carrier and the start of operation of their second carrier and additional destroyers ... and full militarization,” of islands it controls in the South China Sea, Golez said.

China’s first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, was commissioned by the Chinese Navy in 2012. It unveiled its second – and first domestically built – aircraft carrier, the Type001A, which has yet to be named, in April.

Golez said he believed that China has a master plan to transform Scarborough Shoal into a “huge civilian-military complex.”


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