MANILA, Philippines — The Philippines stressed Tuesday that the country was not drifting into the military orbit of China, despite President Rodrigo Duterte’s perceived warming ties with Beijing and fresh concerns about Beijing’s aggressiveness in the South China Sea.
The assurances were made as top U.S. diplomats and defense officials met with their Philippine counterparts in Manila for annual strategic talks aimed at strengthening relations between their two militaries. The Philippines has been America’s closest Southeast Asian strategic ally for the past seven decades, with Washington a consistent source of military aid and arms sales to Manila.
Manila’s envoy to Washington, Jose Manuel Romualdez, said that the two sides discussed “shared concerns,” particularly violent extremism and the continued presence of Islamic State militants in the country. Two years ago, U.S. intelligence helped the local army beat back militants seeking to take over the city of Marawi on the southern island of Mindanao.
“The relationship is very strong,” Romualdez told reporters, adding that the United States had said it would continue its freedom of navigation patrols to prevent Chinese aggression in the South China Sea. The maritime region has recently seen a spike in aggressive Chinese moves against smaller countries like the Philippines and Vietnam.
“I think the United States has clearly said that this is something that they are very concerned about,” Romualdez said, referring to recent actions by China in the strategically vital sea, particularly the reported testing of anti-ship ballistic missiles in disputed waters.
Manila had earlier said it had no “firsthand” knowledge of the testing, first reported by NBC, but said it was looking into the matter.
The talks come just a month after Duterte came under heavy criticism domestically for appearing to side with China when he said there was nothing the Philippines could do to stop the Chinese from entering its waters. He had called a recent sinking of a Filipino fishing boat by a larger Chinese vessel in the disputed waters an ordinary mishap that should not affect bilateral ties.
Twenty-two Filipino fishermen were left floating at sea in that incident before being rescued by a Vietnamese vessel.
In seeking to minimize the incident, Duterte also admitted to having brokered a secret deal with China to allow its fishermen to fish in waters within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone, an act that the constitution bars him from doing.
The South China Sea, a mineral-rich maritime region and a vital waterway for international shipping, is claimed in whole or in part by China, the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan, Vietnam and Indonesia. Over the past week, ships from Vietnam and China have been in a tense standoff over a reef in the Spratly Islands.
David Stilwell, assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, said Washington’s continued partnership with Manila “is critical for realizing our shared vision for a free and open Indo-Pacific with thriving sovereign nations.”
“A strong U.S.-Philippines alliance deters aggression and promotes regional stability, and we welcome enhanced defense cooperation with the Philippines,” he said, adding that the United States seeks “partnership, not domination.”
Duterte has been warming to China partly because of the potential economic dividends of improving ties with a country eager to sprinkle aid around Asia and beyond, though often with strings attached. But Tuesday, Washington and Manila suggested that on the security front, their ties remained tight.
A joint statement released after the meeting said that both sides “recognized the importance of a strong Philippine-U.S. alliance in enhancing security” in the region, including greater military cooperation.
They also reaffirmed their commitment to upholding freedom of navigation and other lawful uses of the South China Sea.
Stilwell said that the United States was also working with Manila against the continued threat of militants allied with the Islamic State in the region. Militants tied to the group have carried out attacks not only in the Philippines but also in Indonesia and Sri Lanka, where there was a devastating series of attacks on Easter Sunday.
“We are committed to continuing our partnership with the Philippines to fight ISIS and other terrorist groups, as well as to counter violent extremism,” Stillwell stressed, using an alternative name for the Islamic State group.
In January, suicide bombers attacked a Catholic Church on the southern island of Jolo, killing 23 people. And just recently, a similar attack occurred at a military base, leaving eight dead, including the bombers.