Duterte eyes military ties with China but US presents obstacles

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 07 May, 2017, 10:03am
UPDATED : Sunday, 07 May, 2017, 10:03am

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has expressed an interest in holding joint military drills with China, but military cooperation between the two countries remains far from mature, experts from both countries said.

Analysts said Duterte’s call for closer military ties with the Chinese navy was in line with his push to reduce Manila’s dependence on the United States and expand ties with other regional powers.

Relations between China and the Philippines have warmed since Duterte promised to put aside their territorial disputes over the South China Sea and pursue stronger economic links, but difficulties remain in expanding economic cooperation into the military sphere.

Philippines’ Duterte seeks alliance with China but defence officials warn of strategic threat

Duterte told media on Monday that he was open to the idea of conducting joint military exercises with China in piracy-plagued waters near the coast of the island of Mindanao. He has also asked Beijing to send patrol ships to help fight against Islamic State-linked militants in the Sulu Sea.

Despite Duterte’s push for joint military exercises the two countries lack a Visiting Forces Agreement, according to Clarita Carlos, an international affairs expert from the University of the Philippines. The Philippines already has agreements in place with the United States and Australia for such cooperation, Carols said. Military drills with Beijing must be based on an written agreement that would serve as terms of reference for the drills, said an expert from the Office of Naval Strategic Studies affiliated with the Philippine Navy, who requested anonymity becaused he was not authorised to speak to the media.

“There are many considerations that have to be discussed bilaterally and threshed out in detail, such as the venue and type of exercises or activities. Those are possible obstacles but subject to bilateral negotiation,” the expert said.

But cooperation between China and the Philippines could give the United States greater insight into how the two Asian neighbours carry out drills, said Zhou Chenming, a veteran military expert from the Knowfar Institute for Strategic and Defence Studies think tank. “The Philippine’s military system is closely linked to the US, so a scenario exists in which China might get to know the radio frequency range, signal type and communication method. That might be a reason for the US to exert pressure on the Philippines and result in the joint military exercises being unable to be carried out,” Zhou said.

“We are actively looking at developing greater contacts, such as defence cooperation, with China. Our defence officials are meeting regularly,” Philippines acting Foreign Minister Enrique Manalo told the Sunday Morning Post. “And we have a good ongoing defence cooperation, also on security issues like anti-terrorism and combating transnational crime.”

What next for China and the Philippines in the South China Sea dispute?

Carlos said Deterte only needed to ask the Senate to pass an agreement with China. “All Duterte has to do is to submit a proposal to the senate, to ask for a Visiting Forces Agreement with China, which paves the way for bilateral defence and military cooperation,” Carlos said. “He controls both houses of congress and enjoys a high approval rating, so it’s easy for him to get votes and the agreement is more likely to be passed.”

Zhou agreed that it was just a matter of time for China and the Philippine to conduct joint military exercises and the two counties could begin with non-traditional military drills such as anti-terrorism, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.