Wait, the Philippines and China Are Friends Now?

Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte has eased the country’s stance on relations with China. 
Wednesday 21 November 2018
'Cheers to us!' Photo: Mark R. Cristino/AFP

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte and his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, met Tuesday in Manila at the beginning of a two-day state visit by the Chinese leader, where the two countries announced 29 agreements. They have preliminarily agreed to cooperate on oil and gas exploration, a move that is likely to anger many Filipinos wary of Chinese territorial expansionism in the region.

The deals include a memorandum of understanding to jointly explore for energy resources, alongside agreements on basic education, agricultural cooperatives and infrastructure projects, Philippines government spokesman JV Arcena told CNN.

According to a Chinese draft of the deal, the Chinese side would authorise its state-owned China National Offshore Oil Corporation to undertake joint exploration in “relevant sea areas” of the South China Sea with an as-yet unnamed Filipino entity, CNN Philippines reported. Filipino opposition senator Antonio Trillanes released the draft Tuesday to reporters.

In the past, the Philippines has taken a strong line on China’s behaviour in the disputed sea, even taking China to an international tribunal. But under Duterte, the government has increasingly looked to build an economically beneficial relationship with Beijing.

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Philippine marines take position next to US marines Amphibious Assault Vehicles (AAV) during an amphibious landing exercise at the beach of the Philippine navy training centre facing the South China Sea in October 2018. Photo: Ted Aljibe/AFP

Duterte told reporters in November that China was “already in possession” of the sea. “It’s now in their hands. So why do we have to create frictions (and undertake) strong military activity that will prompt response from China?” he said.

Back in 2017, when Duterte and Xi met to discuss drilling in the South China Sea, Duterte said, “We intend to drill oil there, if it’s yours, well, that’s your view, but my view is, I can drill the oil, if there is some inside the bowels of the earth because it is ours.” Xi responded with a friendly threat of war if he proceeded to do so. Faced with this option, it is understandable then that Duterte came to this arrangement with Xi – he still gets the oil and avoids a blown out war with one of the world’s superpowers.

Trillanes and another senator, Francis “Kiko” Pangilinan, filed a resolution ahead of Xi’s arrival “demanding transparency” and urging to see the final draft agreement before it is signed, CNN Philippines reported.

Protesting muscular regional policies
Thousands of Filipinos took to the streets as Xi touched down in Manila, protesting in front of the Chinese embassy in the business district of Makati. Demonstrators voiced opposition to the construction of Chinese maritime military bases in international waters in the South China Sea, as well as onerous loan deals to finance Chinese-led projects under Xi’s ambitious, global “one belt, one road” infrastructure scheme, CNN Philippines reported.

READ: How China is Edging Everybody Else Out of the South China Sea

Funding for 34 of 75 flagship infrastructure projects to be built in the Philippines will come from China, CNN Philippines reports. Philippines’ Budget Secretary Benjamin Diokno had earlier insisted that the country wouldn’t fall into a debt trap through Beijing-assisted loans. The “Department of Finance and other agencies … have reviewed the terms that would be the best for us. (We would not agree) if those are unreasonable terms and terms that are worse than other sources,” he said.

Meantime online, many Filipinos changed their profile pictures to images of the cartoon bear Winnie the Pooh, a symbol censored on Chinese social media for its supposed likeness to the Chinese leader.

US flexes muscle in the South China Sea
The United States has steadily ratcheted up its military presence this year in the South China Sea, leading to heightened tensions with Beijing. The Chinese government claims an enormous swathe of territory in the highly contested region, overlapping the stated positions of the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei and Malaysia, among others.

To bolster its position, Beijing since 2015 has been constructing and militarising artificial islands on reefs and shoals in the South China Sea. On Monday, two US B-52 bombers flew near contested islands in the waters, according to US Pacific Air Forces. While the US routinely flies bombers in the vicinity of the South China Sea as part of its long standing “Continuous Bomber Presence” missions, Beijing is particularly sensitive about the presence of US military forces near areas where the Chinese government has built islands and established military facilities on disputed maritime features.

In September, a Chinese warship came within 45 yards of the destroyer USS Decatur, forcing the US vessel to manoeuvre to avoid a collision, and the US Navy labelled China’s actions “unsafe and unprofessional.” That incident took place while the Decatur was conducting a “Freedom of Navigation Operation,” which involved sailing within 12 nautical miles of Gaven and Johnson reefs in the Spratly Islands. The US has accused China of deploying anti-ship missiles, electronic jammers, and surface-to-air missiles to contested islands in the South China Sea.

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US Vice President Mike Pence at the ASEAN Summit in November 2018. Photo: Roslan Rahman/AFP

Pence and Xi spar at major meeting
Xi’s visit to the Philippines caps off an unexpectedly turbulent trip for the Chinese leader, after he joined in a war of words with Pence at the annual APEC summit in Papua New Guinea. Divisions rapidly developed over language in the joint communique condemning “unfair trade practices,” which Chinese officials felt was directed at Beijing.

The heated disagreement meant no statement was issued at the end of the meeting for the first time in its 25-year history. It was a disappointing end to the summit for Xi, who had expected to dominate due to Trump’s absence and the large loans Beijing has dispensed across the Asia-Pacific region.

Source: Euan McKirdy, Ben Westcott, Helen Regan/CNN International, Business Insider

Related: ASEAN Nations May Be Forced to Choose Between the US and China