Manila: Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte has banned joint military exercises with the United States in the South China Sea, where American officials seek to aid the Philippines in territorial disputes with China.
“President Rodrigo Duterte has a standing order to us, to me, that we should not involve ourselves in naval exercises in the South China Sea except our national waters, the 12-mile distance from our shores,” Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said in a briefing this week.
That statement stiff-arms American efforts to forge a coalition to rebuff China’s claim to most of the South China Sea, one of the busiest waterways in the world. Beijing’s assertion of sovereignty comes at the expense of the Philippines and several other countries in the region, but Duterte has flinched from confronting the neighboring communist power in favor of undermining his country’s traditional ties to Washington.
“He probably agrees with the idea that the United States is actually a power that is in decline and China is actually an emergent power,” the University of the Philippines’ Herman Kraft said recently. “China has always been associated with economic largess.”
Some US allies in the region see a growing risk of a clash between American and Chinese forces. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has affirmed that President Trump would defend the Philippines from a Chinese attack, in keeping with the US-Philippines Mutual Defence Treaty, but Duterte maintains that he fears being dragged into a US-China war.
“If one country’s action is considered as belligerent, another tension will normally rise, so I hope that all the parties in this exercise will have, will work on their actions there, to exercise prudence and carefulness so that there will be no miscalculations that could further increase the tension,” Lorenzana said.
And yet, the military leadership in the Philippines is eager to expand its partnership with the US. Manila plans to send a naval contingent to the Rim of the Pacific Exercise this year, even as Duterte resists cooperation closer to home.
“Our participation in this exercise marks the beginning of a new era of naval operations as we build up our capabilities for modern warfare,” Philippine Navy Vice Adm. Giovanni Carlo Bacord told Asia Times. “This is a great opportunity for the ship and its crew to observe and learn how other countries utilize weapons against air, surface, and sub-surface threats.”