By Felipe Villamor
Senior defense and military officials from the Philippines and China held closed door talks in Manila on Friday to boost cooperation amid new reports that Beijing has persisted with its buildup in the disputed South China Sea despite earlier pledges of restraint.
The Philippine delegation was led by Defense Undersecretary for Policy Ricardo David, while Jiang Guoping, the vice chief at China’s Central Military Commission, represented Beijing during the Annual Defense Security Talks (ADST).
“The talks emphasized the importance of the South China Sea for the region’s economic growth and development,” the Philippine defense department said in a statement.
ADST has been held since 2004 with Manila and Beijing alternately serving as host. It has been limited since 2013 after the Philippines filed and eventually won a case related to territorial claims in the South China Sea at the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague.
China has rejected the ruling as flawed even as the international community has applauded the decision.
Since then, the frosty bilateral relations thawed a bit when President Rodrigo Duterte moved to appease Beijing.
The high-level talks “provided both sides the opportunity to exchange views on the current regional security situation and flesh out concrete plans to cooperate in addressing security concerns mutually faced by the Philippines and China,” the statement said.
“The talks also emphasized the importance of the South China Sea for the region’s economic growth and development,” it said.
Officials from both sides “expressed support for the peaceful settlement of disputes through lawful, non-coercive, and transparent means.”
The Philippine side in particular expressed optimism that the adoption of the Framework for the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea in August 2017 brought them closer to the long-sought conclusion of a binding and meaningful agreement, the statement said.
Philippine defense and Chinese embassy officials could not be reached for comment after the talks.
Think tank report
The statement came a day after the United States-based Asia Maritime Transparency Initiatives released a report that said China has continued with its militarization of its islands in the South China Sea as the international spotlight has shifted. New satellite imagery released by the think tanks showed China has built structures that could be used as permanent facilities for military purposes.
Beijing, according to the report, has remained committed to moving into the next phase of its activities to include the building of infrastructure necessary for a fully functioning naval bases on larger outposts. China allegedly include high frequency radars, storage facilities that could hold weapons and missile shelters.
The non-stop buildup apparently occurred as Beijing engaged the Philippines and the 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in talks aimed at easing tensions, it said. Apart from China and the Philippines, portions of the potentially rich sea region is claimed by ASEAN countries Brunei, Malaysia and Vietnam and Taiwan.
The report came just weeks after President Rodrigo Duterte hosted Chinese Premier Li Keqiang in Manila shortly after the Philippines hosted the annual ASEAN summit where the “chairman’s statement” reaffirmed the need for peaceful resolution of disputes in the region.