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Philippine foreign secretary Teodoro Locsin Jnr and Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi during their video call. Photo: Handout

Foreign ministers from China, Philippines discuss South China Sea after US statement from Mike Pompeo

  • Wang Yi’s call to Teodoro Locsin came after the US issued explicit support for the 2016 arbitral ruling rejecting the legality of China’s nine-dash line
  • While Duterte has aligned his country with Beijing, Manila has recently been more vocal about the disputed waterway
China’s foreign minister Wang Yi called on Manila to cherish its hard-won friendship with Beijing and focus on bilateral cooperation, in a Tuesday conversation with his Philippine counterpart Teodoro Locsin Jnr that was prompted by an unusually sharp exchange of statements over the 2016 South China Sea arbitral ruling.

Beijing requested the video call, according to the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs. “Both sides reaffirmed that contentious maritime issues are not the sum total of the Philippines-China bilateral relationship,” it said on Wednesday.

Wang also dwelled on the statement by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who on Monday rejected most of China’s claims in the disputed waterway. Analysts say Washington’s full-throated stance signals more military activity in the South China Sea, and potential sanctions on Chinese entities to push back on Beijing’s influence.

A senior Philippine government official who asked not to be named said the call came about because Wang “wanted to hear directly from Locsin” after China “appeared to be somewhat surprised by the recent statements about the South China Sea”.

“What is interesting is the timing,” the official said. “It showed a certain anxiety on the Chinese side that there was no change in Philippine foreign policy.”

Since taking office in 2016, President Rodrigo Dutete has openly announced his desire to align the Philippines more closely with China and away from the United States, its traditional ally.

Last year Duterte said he might set aside The Hague’s ruling – which favoured the Philippines by rejecting the legality of China’s nine-dash line – in return for a joint exploration agreement with Beijing.

This year, as tensions between the US and China increase over issues ranging from trade to the origins of Covid-19, as well as Hong Kong, Manila has become bolder over the South China Sea dispute.

Xi’s call to Singapore: a subtle ‘reminder’ about the South China Sea?

On Sunday, Philippine foreign affairs secretary Locsin marked the fourth anniversary of the ruling by calling it a “milestone” that was “non-negotiable”.

The following day, Chinese foreign minister Wang asked to speak to Locsin, even as the Chinese embassy in Manila rejected his remarks. “China does not accept or participate in the arbitration, nor does it accept or recognise the so-called award,” it said.

Monday also saw US Secretary of State Pompeo issue his statement calling Beijing’s claims “completely unlawful”.


Washington’s hardened position on Beijing’s claims in South China Sea heightens US-China tensions

Washington’s hardened position on Beijing’s claims in South China Sea heightens US-China tensions

The Philippines’ defence secretary Delfin Lorenzana followed up on Tuesday by urging China to comply with the ruling as well as the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, to which it is a signatory.

“It is in the best interest of regional stability that China heed the call of the community of nations to follow international law and honour existing international agreements,” he said.

David Stillwell, assistant secretary at the US state department’s Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs, on Tuesday referred to the counterclaims against China by the Philippines, one of Washington’s two security allies in Southeast Asia.

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Beijing was “working to undermine the sovereign rights of other coastal states and deny them access to offshore resources – resources that belong to those states, not to China”, he said in remarks at an online event by Washington based think-tank the Centre for Strategic and International Studies.

“This case of peaceful arbitration was brought – with real courage – by the Philippines. And the verdict was unanimous: Beijing’s nine-dash line maritime claim has no basis in international law.”

Subsequently, several former Philippine diplomats and current lawmakers called on the Duterte administration to use Washington’s explicit support for the ruling to pursue enforcement of the arbitral win.

The aircraft carrier USS Ronald Regan conducts a drill in the South China Sea on July 6. Photo: EPA

Philippine presidential spokesman Harry Roque made Duterte’s position clear when he said on Wednesday the Philippines and China “will agree to disagree on the arbitral award and we will proceed with our friendly relations”.

Security analyst Chester Cabalza, a fellow at the National Defence University in Beijing as well as the US state department as part of a University of Delaware programme, said: “The Philippines is dwarfed by two competing great powers. It is trapped in a balancing act.”

In January, Duterte said he would scrap an agreement that allowed Filipino and American military forces to train together in the Philippines – only to backtrack on the abrogation last month.

Analysts said the sudden U-turn was related to rising tension in the South China Sea, as well as the Covid-19 pandemic. Locsin, meanwhile, said the news Manila was no longer abandoning the pact was well received by the US.

The US is taking on Beijing over the South China Sea, but Asean remains cautious

“The mere fact that the Philippine government suspended the abrogation of the Visiting Forces Agreement is a manifestation that China cannot be trusted when it comes to the Philippines’ national security,” said security analyst Cabalza.

Meanwhile, there is growing support at home for Manila to assert its rights over the part of the South China Sea it claims, which it calls the West Philippine Sea.

In a survey released on Tuesday by polling company Social Weather Stations, 70 per cent of respondents agreed that the Philippines “should assert its rights over the islands in the West Philippine Sea as stipulated in the 2016 decision”.

Some 82 per cent of respondents, meanwhile, agreed Manila should “form alliances with other democratic countries that are ready to help us in defending our territorial rights”.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Manila urged to cherish friendship with Beijing