By Karl Romano and Luis Liwanag
Southeast Asian navies will hold maritime drills with their Chinese counterparts in China later this month, the Philippines said Monday, in their first joint naval exercises amid a festering South China Sea territorial dispute.
The drills are to take place from Oct. 22 through 29 in the Chinese city of Zhanjiang, about 2,109 km (1,318 miles) south of Beijing, defense department spokesman Arsenio Andolong told reporters.
“The proposal for a joint ASEAN and Chinese exercise was submitted in February of this year,” during a regional defense meeting in Singapore, Andolong said.
He said Philippines’ top naval official, Vice Admiral Robert Empedrad, is likely to join, but the navy has yet to ascertain which of its two latest warships, retrofitted vessels obtained from the United States, would be used.
In August, China and the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) staged their first computer-simulated drills in Singapore. It involved cooperation scenarios in search-and-rescue operations during a mock ship collision at sea.
To avoid controversy, both sides agreed that the upcoming drills take place far away from the South China Sea, the focus of long-seething territorial disputes between four ASEAN members and Beijing, which has transformed seven disputed reefs into man-made islands that now simulate military bases with surface-to-air missiles and runways.
During the annual meeting of ASEAN foreign ministers in Singapore two months ago, an agreement was announced on a first draft of a “code of conduct,” a set of rules aimed at reducing chances of accidental clashes in the disputed sea region, a strategic waterway through which more than $3 billion of ship-borne trade goes through each year.
China and Taiwan have overlapping claims with ASEAN members Malaysia, Brunei, Vietnam and the Philippines, some of which have sparred in recent years with Beijing.
ASEAN diplomats considered the code of conduct as a “milestone” even as they said that negotiations were continuing for a final draft of the document that is seen as a development that would de-escalate tensions in the area.
Western nations and other ASEAN members Indonesia, Laos, Myanmar, Cambodia, Singapore and Thailand have called for disputes to be resolved peacefully, but China has accused Washington of meddling into an Asian dispute.
The U.S. military has recently been conducting fly overs and freedom-of-navigation tours in the disputed region, and have reported receiving warnings from the Chinese side when its fighter gets and warships came close to China’s artificial islands.
China poses no threat, Manila says
The Philippines has said it was monitoring developments in the region, but said that China posed no threat to its smaller neighbors, as long as Beijing is not directly challenged.
There have been recent reports that Beijing has landed nuclear-capable jets on an island that it occupies, despite earlier agreeing not to militarize the islands it claims.
Manila’s foreign office has said it has filed several diplomatic actions against China, although it has not publicized them.
President Rodrigo Duterte’s government has been working behind the scenes, and has appeared to have gained advantage by its appeasement diplomacy than by directly confronting Beijing.
Since becoming president in 2016, Duterte has made it a point to tighten relations with Beijing, which has been angered by a ruling of an international arbitration court favoring the Philippines.
The previous administration of Benigno Aquino had taken China to court after its ships encroached in the Scarborough Shoal, which lies in the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone. After three years, the Hague-based Permanent Court of Arbitration ruled in favor of Manila in July 2016, when Duterte was already the president.
China, however, refused to comply with the court’s decision and continued with its island-building activities in the region.