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Manila eyes broader ties with Indo-Pacific nations looking to counter Beijing

The Philippines is broadening its relationship with countries that are trying to counter Beijing’s growing assertiveness in the region, while it maintains friendly ties with China despite the Asian superpower’s incursions into Manila’s waters in the South China Sea.

Nurtured by President Rodrigo Duterte to much criticism at home, Manila is keeping its relationship with Beijing on an even keel, ostensibly demonstrating, according to political analyst Rommel Banlaoi, a “pragmatic independent foreign policy” in a polarized world.

For instance, the Filipino foreign secretary is in Tokyo this weekend to take part in the first ever bilateral two-plus-two talks involving the foreign and defense ministers of the Philippines and Japan.

This visit follows a meeting between China’s Xi Jinping and Duterte on Friday, where they “committed to broaden the space for positive engagements” on the South China Sea issue. And on the same day, the Philippines concluded one of its largest military exercises with the United States, its longtime defense ally.

Banlaoi, president of the Philippine Association for Chinese Studies (PACS), said Manila is demonstrating its independence by maintaining its longstanding security alliance with the U.S, strengthening is strategic partnerships with Japan, Australia, South Korea, and the European Union, and maintaining friendly relations with China despite tensions over the waterway.

Still, disputes to do with the South China Sea, part of which is called the West Philippine Sea by the Filipinos, are the main reason behind for broadened security cooperation between the Philippines and other countries in the region, analysts said. Celia Lamkin, Founder of the National Youth Movement for the West Philippine Sea

“The foreign and defense talks between Japan and the Philippines in Tokyo [on Saturday] are significant because of the non-stop aggression and militarization by China in our West Philippine Sea,” Celia Lamkin, Founder of the National Youth Movement for the West Philippine Sea, told BenarNews, using the Philippine term for the South China Sea.

On Thursday, the Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana met with his Japanese counterpart, Nobuo Kishi, in Tokyo to discuss “ways to further enhance bilateral and multilateral cooperation,” according to the official Philippine News Agency.

The two defense ministers agreed to bolster security cooperation and expand bilateral and multilateral exercises, according to a statement from the Japanese Ministry of National Defense.

“They shared their intent that they will not tolerate any unilateral change of the status quo by force in the Indo-Pacific, particularly in East Asia and Southeast Asia,” the statement said.

China is involved in maritime disputes with Japan over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea.

The inaugural two-plus-two meeting on Saturday will continue to “promote bilateral defense cooperation and exchanges to uphold and strengthen the Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP),” Japan Defense Ministry said.

“We need allies like Japan and the U.S. to show China to respect international law in our West Philippine Sea and the rest of the South China Sea,” said Lamkin from the National Youth Movement for the West Philippine Sea.

China claims nearly the entire South China Sea, including waters within the exclusive economic zones of Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan. While Indonesia does not regard itself as party to the South China Sea dispute, Beijing claims historic rights to parts of that sea overlapping Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone as well.

‘Open, warm, and positive’

A day before this two-plus-two meeting, Duterte, who is due to leave office after the Philippine general election in May and who has consistently called China’s Xi a friend, had a telephone meeting with the Chinese leader.

During the call, the two said they work towards maintaining peace and stability in the South China Sea by exercising restraint, a statement from Duterte’s office said.

A Chinese statement, meanwhile, said Xi had expressed his approval for how the two nations have dealt with the issue of the disputed South China Sea. Beijing, however, has consistently ignored a 2016 decision by an international arbitration court in The Hague that rejected China’s expansive claims in the contested waterway.

Meanwhile, news emerged on Thursday that, for days, a Chinese coastguard ship had followed a research vessel deployed by Philippine and Taiwanese scientists in waters in off the northern Philippines, sparking concerns.

Still, the statement from Duterte’s office described the hour-long telephone conversation as “open, warm and positive.”

Then again, Manila surprised many a day earlier by voting against Beijing’s ally Moscow, and in favor of a resolution to suspend Russia from the United Nations Human Rights Council. It was the only ASEAN Nation to vote in favor of the resolution, apart from the Myanmar government in exile.

Also, last September, when Australia, the United Kingdom and the U.S. announced the establishment of a trilateral security pact, AUKUS, the Philippines was the first country in Southeast Asia to endorse it despite concerns from regional players including Malaysia and Indonesia.

With the Philippine presidential election looming in May, all eyes are on who will win the race, said Lamkin from the National Youth Movement for the West Philippine Sea.

She added: “Our struggle for sovereign rights in the West Philippine Sea depend very much on who will be the next president.”

Jason Gutierrez of BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated on-line news outlet, contributed to this report from Manila.