MANILA - (UPDATE) Malacañang on Friday said it does not object to Chinese proposals to hold military drills with Southeast Asian nations that will exclude the United States, a major military power in the Pacific and South China Sea.
Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque said China’s objective in pursuing an all-Asian military drill was to “have a military relation [with its] neighbors.”
“I’m sure defense authorities will study the matter seriously. We find nothing objectionable to the fact that China would want to exclude non-Asians from the military exercise,” Roque said in a press briefing in Malaybalay City, Bukidnon.
“The United States is 10,000 miles away. If the intention is to build stronger relations between military forces who are neighbors, then the US would be out of place.”
In a draft text, Beijing suggested that China and the 10 ASEAN states carry out joint military exercises regularly, Agence France-Presse earlier reported.
The draft said the drills should not involve countries outside the region "unless the parties concerned are notified beforehand and express no objection."
The suggestion to exclude outside countries "is obviously targeted at the US which has been dominating the waters of the Western Pacific and the South China Sea in particular," Hoang Thi Ha of the ASEAN Studies Centre, ISEAS Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore, told AFP.
A code of conduct between Beijing and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to govern behavior in the strategic sea has been years in the making.
The Department of Foreign Affairs said Friday progress in the draft code of conduct would "contribute significantly" to avoid escalating tensions in the disputed waters.
"The matter will be advantageous to the Philippines in the sense that while it's not resolving the ownership of the sea, it's really intended to make sure that actions of parties will not increase tension in the region," Foreign Affairs Undersecretary Ernesto Abella told ANC Friday.
"It had several key modalities for example it's really meant to engage practical measures to reduce tensions," he added.
Beijing also suggested that China and ASEAN could carry out joint oil and gas exploration in the waters but again proposed that firms from countries outside the region be excluded from such activities, the document showed.
Beijing's suggestions are part of efforts to expand its influence in the South China Sea, which it claims almost entirely, and push back at Washington which has backed countries with overlapping claims to the waters.
Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam have rival claims to China's in the sea.
Tensions have escalated in recent years due to Beijing building artificial islands that can host military bases.
Meanwhile, the US -- traditionally the dominant military power in the area -- has more frequently carried out patrols aimed at ensuring freedom of navigation.
The Philippines, under previous president Benigno Aquino III, had been a leading voice against China's expansion in the sea and used ASEAN events to pressure Beijing -- but current Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has reversed that policy. - with a report from AFP