President Duterte met last Tuesday with a delegation of the Communist Party of China (CPC). The President affirmed “our desire and wish of the Filipino people to make our bonds stronger,” Malacañang said. The meeting was held amid reports of China’s increased construction activities on Kagitingan Reef in the South China Sea, with Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana recommending that a diplomatic protest be filed if the reports of a military buildup on the reef are confirmed.
The same week, American Ambassador to the Philippines Sung Kim reiterated in a television interview the United States commitment to defend the Philippines in case of foreign attack. He added that while the US is not a claimant to any island or reef in the South China Sea, it is deeply concerned that any dispute be peacefully resolved. He reiterated that the US government will also continue to protect international rights such as freedom of navigation in and freedom of flight over international waters.
The two reports – the Chinese meeting with the President in Malacañang and the US ambassador’s reiteration of America’ s support for the Philippines – remind us in this new year that the old problem of conflicting claims in the South China Sea remains unresolved and the area remains a potential site of conflict.
The Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Brunei have claims to certain islands in the South China Sea, claims totally rejected by China because, it says, it has sovereignty over this sea. It has built runways and set up military installations on some islands, claiming its right to do so because of that sovereignty. China has not recognized the United Nations-backed Arbitral Court decision which recognized the Philippines’ claims.
President Duterte, however, has chosen to pursue a policy of cooperation with China, saying now is not the proper time to assert its claims as upheld by the Arbitral Court. This explains the convivial atmosphere in his meeting with the Chinese delegation in Malacañang last Tuesday.
In contrast, the President has kept his silence over the US ambassador’s assurance of American readiness to protect the Philippines in case of an attack. Ambassador Kim might have been referring to a possible attack from North Korea in case nuclear war breaks out between that country and the US. More likely, he was thinking of a possible conflict over the islands in the South China Sea.
We understand and accept the President’s decision to set aside the Arbitral Court decision at this time in the interest of peace in the region and the economic benefits accruing from his present policy of cooperation with China. But we also value – as we are sure the President also values – the assurance of the US that in case of an attack, it will be there to help and defend us.