Sino-Philippine relations: words, actions, national interest
On May 2, the Department of Foreign Affairs issued a strong statement dismissing the claim of Chinese Ambassador Zhao Jianhua that the Philippines’ planned improvement works at Pag-asa Island would be illegal. “Pag-asa Island and the larger Kalayaan Island Group are a municipality of Palawan,” DFA’s spokesperson Robespierre Bolivar told reporters. A day before, Zhao said, “We view the occupation by the Philippine side of those islands as illegal. And so the buildings on it are also illegal.”
From this point, we can see that China will always defend its moves in contested areas as the owner of islands and reefs they want to control and occupy. And we believe that China will continue to send a warning to those who oppose these moves—with airplanes or an aircraft carrier.
On the other hand, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana pointed out China’s extensive development of Subi Reef. Satellite images show anti-aircraft guns and weapons systems on a reef being claimed by Taiwan, Vietnam and the Philippines.
In trade, China and the Philippines appear to be in good terms; the challenge, however, is on maritime issues. In fact, China has raised regional concerns by turning reefs and shoals in contested areas into artificial islands, even installing military facilities and airstrips on some of them.
President Duterte, who was elected last year, has distanced himself from the Philippines’ traditional, longtime ally, the United States. He has played down the country’s territorial dispute with China in favor of greater economic aid and investments from Beijing.
Meanwhile, there is an interesting scene here where it was the DFA’s executive director, Zaldy Patron, who notified that not one of the Asean leaders “strongly pushed” against China’s militarization and reclamation activities. During the Asean plenary and summit, no leader mentioned the inclusion of or made reference to land reclamation, militarization and arbitration in South China Sea.
For now, Sino-Philippine relations remain strong as can be gleaned from the partnership of the two countries in planned multimillion-dollar infrastructure projects. I don’t think that small issues will affect the overall direction of our bilateral relationship.
Pag-asa Island is the largest of the islands under the municipality of Kalayaan, which was created in 1978. The town, which has 180 residents, has a complete political structure. The town center is on Pag-asa Island, which China calls “Thitu.”
KRISTAMEL E. NARVASA,
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