China is likely to be high on the agenda at top level US-Philippine security talks today as Washington refocuses its foreign policy on Asia and Manila realizes its limits in trying to solve territorial disputes with Beijing alone.
China has maritime spats with several countries in the South China Sea, believed to be rich in oil and gas and crossed by important shipping lanes, and its neighbors fear its growing naval reach in staking claims.
Those disputes are pushing the Philippines to seek closer cooperation with the US, which in turn has prompted China to warn Washington against getting involved, denouncing last week’s US-Philippine military drills as bringing the risk of armed conflict closer.
“I’m sure we need to be diplomatic, but I don’t think we should tip-toe around the Chinese on this,” said Walter Lohman, director of the Asian Studies Center with the conservative Washington-based Heritage Foundation think tank.
“There is nothing new about the US exercising with the Philippines. We shouldn’t refrain because the Chinese don’t like it. In fact, I expect the [Washington meeting] will come up with some agreement on increasing the frequency and variety of exercises, ship visits. Also expect agreement on hardware, joint use of Philippines’ training facilities and bases,” he said.
Yesterday, China said it had made “stern representations” to the Philippines about its proposal for international arbitration over Scarborough Shoal (黃岩島), site of the most recent standoff between the two sides.
“China urges the Phillipines to earnestly respect China’s sovereignty and do nothing to expand or complicate matters,” the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs cited Deng Zhonghua (鄧中華), head of its Department of Boundary and Ocean Affairs, as saying.
Manila’s moves to strengthen security ties with its former colonial master coincide with the US foreign policy “pivot” toward Asia to concentrate on, among other things, North Korea’s nuclear ambitions and China’s military buildup.
Twenty years after the Philippines voted to remove US bases, it now wants to give US troops more access to its ports and airfields.
“We enjoy a really close military-to-military relationship with the Philippines and I think certainly coming out of this two plus two, we’ll be looking for ways to improve and enhance that relationship,” Pentagon spokesman US Navy Captain John Kirby said, referring to talks between the defense and foreign secretaries, the highest-level security talks yet between the two sides. “But it is safe to say that ... our relationship with the Philippines is part and parcel of the larger shift to focus on the Asia-Pacific.”
A Philippine general familiar with the discussions to be held in Washington said the US had a list of airfields in the Philippines that it could use for routine deployment of tankers, fighters and transport planes.
“These are not new bases for the Americans, these are still our facilities,” said the general, who declined to be identified. “They are only asking us if we can share some of our idle space with them.”
This is a sensitive area for Philippine President Benigno Aquino, some of whose political advisers are uncomfortable with an expanding US role.
The US plan to use Philippine airports is not new. At the height of US operations in Iraq and Afghanistan in the mid-2000s, Manila allowed US military planes to refuel at an airport in northernmost Batanes province, close to Taiwan.