President Rodrigo Duterte has barred the Philippine military from joining naval exercises in international waters of the South China Sea, officials said Tuesday, indicating the Philippines wanted to avoid taking sides between China and the United States amid rising tensions in the region.
Presidential spokesman Harry Roque discussed Duterte’s stance on Tuesday, a day after Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana announced the order.
“The president has long had an independent foreign policy,” Roque told reporters. “We are friends to everyone and an enemy to none.”
“If what the superpowers are doing would result in increased tension, we will avoid joining them,” he said.
In recent weeks, China and the United States have conducted naval maneuvers and exercises in the South China Sea, while being embroiled in a war of words over the contested waterway after U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in mid-July declared Beijing’s sweeping claims there illegal.
Last month, the U.S. deployed two aircraft carriers, the USS Nimitz and the USS Ronald Reagan along with their strike groups to the South China Sea. The deployment, the first in several years, followed a Chinese military exercise around the disputed Paracel islands.
On Monday, Lorenzana revealed that Duterte had told the military to refrain from joining other countries, including the United States and Australia, in maritime drills in the sea’s international waters.
“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,” Lorenzana told reporters, according to Philippine media.
The defense secretary did not immediately respond to several requests for comment Tuesday from BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service.
During his annual State of the Nation Address last week, Duterte said he was “powerless” to enforce Manila’s sovereignty over disputed islands in the South China Sea. He added that China already occupied the islands and the Philippines could not counter Chinese aggression.
China occupies and has fortified islands in the South China Sea. China, Brunei, the Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam and Beijing’s rival, Taiwan, have overlapping claims to maritime region.
Duterte’s speech came four years after the Hague-based Permanent Court of Arbitration ruled for Manila and against Beijing in dismissing China’s extensive claims to the sea region. Instead of enforcing the 2016 ruling, which was handed down a few weeks before he took office, Duterte set it aside in favor of closer ties with Beijing while distancing Manila from Washington, its traditional ally.
Over the past two weeks, Duterte said he had spoken recently with Chinese leader Xi Jinping, whom he said had promised that the Philippines would be among the first countries on the list to receive a COVID-19 vaccine, should one be developed.
Last week, China’s ambassador to Manila, Huang Xilian, said the two nations should not allow others to affect their relationship.
“China and the Philippines should not allow external powers to roil the waters in the South China Sea, nor waver [in] our commitment [in] pursuance of an independent foreign policy and China-Philippine friendly relations,” Huang told an online forum.
“The Philippines’ future will not float anywhere, but will be deeply rooted in its own national development, in a stable and amicable neighborhood, and in a peaceful and prosperous Asian region,” the envoy said in a statement posted on the embassy’s Facebook page on July 29.
Without naming another country, the ambassador said that a “superpower” was locked in a “cold-war mentality” and trying to suppress China in every possible way, as well as to “sow discord” among countries in the region.
Exercises with other nations
Later this month, the U.S. will be hosting a multi-nation exercise, Rim of the Pacific, near Hawaii, far from the South China Sea. A Philippine Navy ship has set sail to join the exercises.
In January, coast guard ships from the Philippines and China staged their first drill – an exercise involving rescuing victims after a ship caught fire in its cargo hold – in waters off Manila.
The next month, Duterte announced that the Philippines would terminate its 1999 Visiting Forces Agreement with the U.S. The bilateral pact has allowed large-scale joint military drills with U.S. forces, which defense analysts said were vital to the Philippines as it faces a challenge from China over claims in the South China Sea.
A month later, the U.S. said the COVID-19 pandemic had forced it to cancel the Balikatan exercise scheduled for May. The annual “shoulder-to-shoulder” military exercises normally draw thousands of troops from both nations along with Australian forces who have been invited to participate.
In June, Philippine Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. announced that his nation, in an effort to reinvigorate ties with the U.S. in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, was holding off on withdrawing from the VFA for at least six months.
The U.S. Embassy in Manila welcomed Locsin’s diplomatic note about the change.
“Our longstanding alliance has benefited both countries, and we look forward to continued close security and defense cooperation with the Philippines,” it said in a statement at the time.
Reported by BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service.