MANILA (UPDATE) - The Philippines will not join naval drills in the disputed South China Sea, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said Thursday, amid calls to push back against Beijing's activities in the area.
In an interview, Lorenzana said the Philippines skipped South China Sea naval drills with the United States and other countries last year so as not to antagonize China, with which President Rodrigo Duterte forged friendlier relations.
"The main reason why we did not participate in the exercises in the South China Sea with the US and all the allies is because we didn’t have equipment to match what they are doing there. We have frigates but they’re not armed, we have ships but they’re not also armed," he said in an interview on ANC's Headstart.
"Firstly, it’s not to antagonize China because China is watching us here and a lot of things could be done to us by the Chinese government if they are antagonized," he added.
He said the US Navy continues to send carrier groups in the South China Sea without Manila's knowledge. "To them, that is a traditional shipping lane and that is open to all so they can do anything they want there in the South China Sea," he said.
"It is to their interest maybe why they are doing these exercises in the South China Sea, to keep South China Sea open for commercial and innocent navigation. That’s the reason why we did not want to participate."
Lorenzana said the Philippine Navy participates annually in a "passage exercise" with the US but is limited within the country's territorial waters.
"They do this every year. We just avoid going with them in the disputed islands, in the disputed area. But we can do exercises with them within the territorial waters of the Philippines, specifically the Sulu Seas. 'Wag na muna dun sa disputed area kasi it rises the tension on both sides. The claimants there also will be alarmed that lots of exercises are going on there. As much as possible, I would not like as Defense Secretary, I would not like to be involved there because if a shooting war erupts…"
In a phone call with his American counterpart, Lorenzana said he told US Defense Chief Lloyd Austin that he does not want accidents, such as shooting wars in the South China Sea.
"I told Sec. Austin, we don’t want anything—miscalculations or accidents—happening in the South China Sea because we are right smack in the center of the conflict kung mangyari yan (if it happens)," he said.
Duterte earlier barred the military from joining naval exercises in the South China Sea amid Beijing's pursuit of territory and resources in the area.
Jay Batongbacal, director of the UP Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea, said Manila's refusal to join the exercises shows the Philippines "is not really willing at this time to put its money where its mouth is when it comes to external defense, because it refuses to conduct simple exercises with its allies..."
In the ANC interview, Lorenzana said the Philippines is not appeasing China and it is wrong to say Manila is not fighting back amid Beijing's continued activities in the South China Sea.
"We’re not appeasing China. We’re trying to develop relationships with all countries around the region. We’re not appeasing anybody," he said.
"Our relationship with China has always been, since President Duterte became president, cordial and friendly. We don’t want to muddle the issue there. As I said a while ago, they’re our close neighbor and we have a lot of interactions with them, especially trade."
Lorenzana said he has come out with "strong words" against the Chinese, and was even told by Beijing's envoy that he "should not say those words because they have constituencies at home." He said he responded that he, too, had constituencies who watch what he says.
"If there are provocations there, I will speak about those provocations," he said.