MANILA, Philippines (UPDATED) – President Rodrigo Duterte has assured Chinese Ambassador Zhao Jianhua that the Philippines will not take part in the US military exercises in the South China Sea in November, which would supposedly be held around the same time as the Manila visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping.
Xi’s visit was a topic of discussion during the meeting between Duterte and the envoy on Monday afternoon, October 8, in Malacañang.
“China of course expressed concern over a naval military exercise that the US will be conducting in the area about the same time as the Chinese President will be in the Philippines. The President said we will not take part in that military exercise,” Presidential Spokesman Harry Roque said in a news briefing on Tuesday, October 9.
Roque said Duterte's assurance is meant to ensure a "seamless" visit for Xi.
"The general consensus was we don’t want anything to mar the visit of President Xi so I think the DFA will do all that it can to make sure that President Xi’s visit will be fruitful and as productive as we would want it to be.," said the spokesman.
Zhao was apparently referring to the supposed plan of the US Navy’s Pacific fleet to carry out a series of military exercises in the South China Sea for a week in November to showcase its defense capabilities, particularly to China. The proposal, however, did not suggest any participation of militaries from traditional US allies like the Philippines.
CNN reported the proposed US naval exercise on October 4, days after an encounter between a US Navy ship and a Chinese warship in the South China Sea that raised tensions in the area.
In relation to the supposed planned US naval exercises in the South China Sea, Zhao reiterated to Duterte that China was against any militarization in those waters.
“China reiterated that they do not desire any military confrontation as a result of the West Philippine Sea, either with any of the claimaint states or with any other powers because China is the biggest user of the West Philippine Sea and any military confrontation in the West Philippine Sea will have dire consequences as far as Chinese commerce is concerned,” Roque said.
However, China has also been called out by other countries, including Southeast Asian nations, for building military outposts on artificial islands in the West Philippine Sea. Duterte himself had castigated Beijing for issuing aggressive radio warnings to Filipino airforce pilots flying over the sea. (READ: Chinese bombers land on South China Sea island)
In the Philippines, an independent poll showed that 4 in 5 Filipinos said it is wrong for the Duterte administration not to do anything about China's militarization of the West Philippine Sea.
During the Palace meeting, Duterte and Zhao also affirmed their two countries' plans to pursue joint exploration for natural resources in the West Philippine Sea, despite overlapping claims. An international arbitral tribunal had invalidated China’s expansive claim to the body of water in a landmark 2016 decision which Beijing refuses to heed. (READ: FAST FACTS: South China Sea dispute)
“Both agreed that joint exploration in the disputed West Philippine Sea would be to each others' interest, to both countries' interest,” said Roque.
By the end of the meeting, Zhao affirmed his goverment’s commitment to push through with its planned assistance to the Duterte administration.
Xi is expected to visit the Philippines in mid-November. During that visit, the Philippines and China are expected to sign a document related to joint exploration in the West Philippine Sea. – Rappler.com
Pia Ranada covers the Office of the President and Bangsamoro regional issues for Rappler. While helping out with desk duties, she also watches the environment sector and the local government of Quezon City. For tips or story suggestions, you can reach her at email@example.com.