Philippines clash with Chinese diplomats over maritime disputes
Manila, Philippines — Philippine diplomats are expected to spark a series of protests against China’s aggressive behavior in the South China Sea, including targeting a Philippine Coast Guard vessel with a powerful military laser, during their meeting with Chinese officials on Friday, said a manager.
Territorial disputes in the busy waterway have long emerged as a potential flashpoint in Asia and have become a sensitive front in the regional rivalry between China and the United States.
Washington claims no claims in the disputed waters, but has challenged Beijing’s extensive claims, including deploying its warships and fighter jets and repeatedly warning it would help defend the Philippines – a treaty ally – if Philippine forces, ships and aircraft were attacked. Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan also have overlapping claims to the seaway, which is backed by vast deposits of oil and gas.
A Chinese delegation led by Vice Foreign Minister Sun Weidong held two days of talks from Thursday with their Philippine counterparts led by Under Foreign Secretary Theresa Lazaro to review overall relations. The two sides will focus on their territorial disputes on Friday, the foreign ministry in Manila said.
The talks opened with both sides citing an agreement between Chinese leader Xi Jinping and Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr., who made a state visit to China in early January, to handle territorial disputes amicably while strengthening economic ties and other aspects of nearly half a century of diplomatic relations.
“We must not let specific differences define our bilateral relationship or allow certain differences to hamper overall cooperation,” Sun said in an opening speech before reporters were asked to leave the meeting room. “We must properly handle these issues through friendly consultation.”
A Filipino official involved in the talks told The Associated Press that Filipino diplomats would describe several incidents underscoring China’s assertiveness in disputed waters. This includes an incident on Feb. 6 when a Chinese Coast Guard vessel aimed a military-grade laser that briefly blinded some crew members of a Philippine patrol boat off a disputed shoal.
The official spoke on condition of anonymity due to a lack of authority to publicly discuss what happened at the meetings.
Marcos summoned the Chinese ambassador to Manila to express his concern shortly after the laser pointing incident. The Philippine Coast Guard filmed the incident, which they made public, but Beijing countered that the Philippine vessel had entered Chinese territorial waters and that its coast guard had used a harmless laser gadget to monitor the ship movements.
Manila’s foreign affairs department condemned the Chinese coast guard’s action and sent a strong protest to the Chinese embassy. More than 200 such diplomatic protests have been filed by the Philippines against China since last year, including at least 77 since Marcos took office in June, underscoring how long-running conflicts have become a major irritant in relations with China at the start of his presidency.
China and the Philippines first held dispute-focused talks in 2017, but no major resolution was reached as the two sides stuck to their territorial stance. The consultations, however, help both sides better understand each other’s position “and make accidental crises a little less likely,” said Washington-based analyst Greg Poling, who has studied the disputes in depth.
“It has to be done with clear eyes and without expecting fundamental issues to be resolved in the short term through this format,” Poling told the AP. “China is not interested in compromise and the positions of the two countries are not reconcilable.”
In early February, the Marcos administration announced that it would allow rotating batches of US forces to be stationed indefinitely at four other Philippine military camps. These are in addition to the five local bases previously designated under the 2014 Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement, or EDCA, between the allies.
Marcos told reporters on Wednesday that the four additional military sites would include areas in the northern Philippines. This location infuriated Chinese officials because it would provide US forces with a staging ground close to southern China and Taiwan.
Chinese diplomats voiced strong opposition to an expanded U.S. military presence in the Philippines during closed-door talks on Thursday and warned of its future implications, the Philippine official told AP without giving further details.
Filipino diplomats responded to China’s objections by saying an expanded US military presence served their national interest and would enhance the Philippines’ ability to respond to natural disasters, the official said, suggesting the move was not aimed at China.
Marcos said US forces would also be allowed to station in military areas in the island province of Palawan in the western Philippines, adding that the US military presence would bolster coastal defense.
Palawan faces the South China Sea, a key passage for world trade that Beijing claims almost entirely.
Despite China’s objection to a new US military presence in the Philippines, two senior Filipino officials told the AP that the Philippine government would extend the EDCA, which allows for such a temporary presence of US forces. The Philippine Constitution prohibits the permanent stationing of foreign troops in the country.
The EDCA, signed in 2014, would initially be in effect for 10 years and would remain in effect automatically unless terminated by either party with one year’s written notice.
The two officials, including a senior security official, spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity because they do not have the authority to discuss the matter publicly.
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