MANILA – Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana on Friday said nothing has changed in the defense alliance between the Philippines and the US, even if President Rodrigo Duterte has expressed interest in forging closer ties with Beijing, Washington’s strategic rival.
Lorenzana sees nothing wrong with Duterte cozying up to Beijing, noting that the deals being eyed so far by the two Asian neighbors involve trade.
“As of now, wala naman akong nakikitang nakikipag-alyado tayo sa Tsina in terms of defense cooperation… So sa tingin ko, trade lang iyan,” he said.
[As of now there are no indications we are forging a defense cooperation with China… I think it is mostly about trade.]
Duterte has repeatedly said armed conflict with China was pointless, and that he wants to get along and do business with Beijing.
Some analysts believe Duterte's uncharacteristic verbal restraint towards China, in contrast to his stinging rebukes of the United States, United Nations and European Union, shows he is hedging in pursuit of his goal of an independent foreign policy and reducing reliance on the Philippines' former colonizer, Washington.
China and the Philippines are trying to find a way to break the ice after a verdict by an arbitral court in The Hague in July invalidated China's claims to most of the South China Sea and gave Manila the legal high ground in the dispute.
During a speech on Thursday Duterte said he would go to China this year and, without elaborating, told Chinese businessmen: "You will see me often".
He reiterated he would not deviate from the court ruling but would seek a way out of a four-year Chinese blockade in Scarborough Shoal off Zambales province.
He said he wants China's coastguard to let Filipino fishermen go to their traditional fishing ground unimpeded. The arbitration panel ruled that no one country should legally control that shoal.
A source in the Duterte's office said it was possible former President Fidel Ramos, his new China envoy, could visit as early as next week to lay the groundwork for talks.
Lorenzana is taking a wait-and-see approach after Duterte vowed to hold talks with China to allow Filipino fishermen access to the resources-rich Scarborough.
Lorenzana, meanwhile, said the South China Sea issue and terrorism may be taken up during his upcoming informal meeting with his counterparts in the ASEAN and the US in Hawaii next week.
Lorenzana said, bilateral engagements among the participating countries may also be on the agenda.
The ASEAN Defense Informal meeting, hosted by US Defense Secretary Ash Carter, “will follow up on the commitments and issues raised at the 2016 U.S.-ASEAN Summit in Laos earlier this month."
Participating ministers "will discuss common security concerns and opportunities for further cooperation to build and sustain a rules-based international order in the Asia-Pacific," the US Department of Defense said in a statement. – with Reuters