MANILA (UPDATE) – The Philippines and China have started talks on the creation of a Joint Coast Guard Committee, amid fresh tension in the disputed South China Sea over what a United States think-tank said was a move by Bejing to militarize its artificial islands in the Spratlys.
A joint statement by the Philippine and Chinese coast guards said that both sides had a friendly exchange of views on the establishment of the joint coast guard committee, including the principles of the organizational structure, terms of references, and operational procedures.
“Both sides explored possible programs of maritime cooperation, including combating drug trafficking and other maritime crimes, marine environmental protection, maritime search and rescue, and capacity-building in related areas,” the joint statement read.
The establishment of the joint coast guard committee was one of the agreements signed by Chinese President Xi Jinping and President Rodrigo Duterte during the latter’s state visit to China in October.
The joint coast guard committee, once established, “will serve as an avenue for both Coast Guards to strengthen mutual trust, deepen confidence, intensify communications and exchange, enhance friendly cooperation based on equality, reciprocity, and consensus,” the joint statement read.
"This is a milestone because it opened the communication lines between the two agencies involved in the (South China Sea)," Philippine coast guard spokesman Armand Balilo told AFP.
China claims most of the strategic South China Sea -- despite partial counter-claims by the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam -- and Chinese coast guard vessels have become an ever-growing presence in the waterway.
Balilo said territorial issues were not discussed, but the meeting was a "confidence-building measure" resulting from Duterte's trip to China in October.
The first round of talks were held on December 15 to 16. Both sides agreed to convene a 2nd organizational meeting and the inaugural meeting of the JCGC in February 2017, to be hosted by the Philippines.
The talks were conducted as US think-tank Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI) of the Center for Strategic and International Studies said China appears to have installed weapons, including anti-aircraft and anti-missile systems, on all seven of the artificial islands it has built in the South China Sea.
AMTI said its findings come despite statements by the Chinese leadership that Beijing has no intention to militarize the islands in the strategic trade route, where territory is claimed by several countries.
AMTI said it had been tracking construction of hexagonal structures on Fiery Cross, Mischief and Subi reefs in the Spratly Islands since June and July. China has already built military length airstrips on these islands.
Philippine Defense Minister Delfin Lorenzana said Manila was trying to verify the report but if true, it was a "big concern" for the international community as it would mean China was "militarizing" the area.
Relations between the Philippines and China have improved since Duterte took office. The tough-talking Filipino leader has chosen to set aside an arbitral tribunal's ruling declaring Beijing's sea claims invalid, while praising China's support for his deadly drug war.
China, in exchange, loosened its barricade restrictions to the resource-rich Scarborough Shoal and has pledged aid for the Philippines.
Philippine ambassador to China Jose Santiago Santa Romana said "sensitive" issues would be tackled separately.
"It will be discussed using quiet diplomacy as well as high-level diplomacy," Santa Romana told ABS-CBN. – with Reuters, Agence France-Presse