Defense chief: US helped PH renew friendship with China
From the start, President Rodrigo Duterte wanted a “soft” handling of the West Philippine Sea dispute with China, and this paid off with the “newly found friendship” between the two countries, highlighted by the state visit by Chinese President Xi Jinping, according to Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana.
But there is a twist. Manila and Beijing may have to thank Washington for their warming ties.
In a speech on Friday, Lorenzana said former US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter had called him about a possible “favorable” outcome of the Philippine case against China in the Permanent Court of Arbitration about a week before the tribunal in The Hague issued its July 12, 2016, ruling that nullified Beijing’s sweeping claims over nearly the entire South China Sea.
Speaking at the Asian Institute of Management conference on maritime disputes in the South China Sea, Lorenzana said Carter advised the Philippines to “exercise restraint.”
“Don’t do anything in the South China Sea that will provoke some trouble there,” he quoted Carter.
“It’s significant that I was cautioned by the US to restrain our actions,” Lorenzana said, adding that he was considering sending a small naval force to drive away the Chinese from Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal.
Following the US advice and shortly before the ruling was announced, it was decided at a Cabinet meeting that the Philippine government would “do a soft [handling]” of the dispute, he said.
“We should not be overly celebrating because we might offend China,” Lorenzana said.
This explains then Foreign Secretary Perfecto Yasay’s “somber” announcement of the ruling, he said.
Since then, tensions in the disputed waters have eased and relations between Manila and Beijing became more cordial after the meetings, Lorenzana said.
The Chinese were “allowing” Filipinos to fish near Panatag Shoal again, resupplying operations and repairs on the runway at the Philippine-held Pagasa Island were unhampered by the Chinese and freedom of navigation by other countries were continuing without Chinese interference, he said.
‘New friendship benefits’
He said the “benefits” of the “new friendship” included the resumption of Philippine exports to China, the return of Chinese tourists, donations of military equipment from Beijing during the Marawi siege last year and more “aggressive” Chinese investments.
China has also expressed more willingness to craft a code of conduct in the West Philippine Sea in three years, the biggest progress made on the issue since talks started in 2012, Lorenzana said.
China has also accepted an “initial agreement” that countries claiming areas in the disputed waters would not occupy any new features, he added.
“We can deduce from what I said why this newly found friendship of Philippines and China is happening,” Lorenzana said.
He said that during the President’s first meeting with Xi in China in 2016, Mr. Duterte told the Chinese leader he “did not come here to talk about the [South China Sea]” but just “for friendship.”
It was in their second meeting in China in 2017 that Mr. Duterte was more direct, and first broached the idea of a joint oil exploration, Lorenzana said.
He quoted Mr. Duterte telling Xi: “Mr. President, we need oil. We have to dig oil in our area there … [and] if we have to dig oil jointly, I would like it to be under our jurisdiction.”
“[Xi] looked him in the eye and said: ‘Mr. President [Duterte], please remember we also claim the area,’” Lorenzana said.
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