THE Chinese and Philippine coast guards met for the first time on Friday and agreed to move forward on maritime cooperation, officials said, as relations between Beijing and Manila warm under Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte.
The two-day meeting in Manila on establishing a Joint Coast Guard Committee (JCGC) came just days after new images showed China had apparently installed defensive weapons on artificial islands in the hotly contested West Philippine Sea (South China Sea).
In a joint statement, the coast guards said possible areas for cooperation included fighting drug trafficking and other maritime crimes, environmental protection and search and rescue.
“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.
Duterte, 71, has pivoted foreign policy away from traditional ally the United States towards China and Russia.
His predecessor, Benigno Aquino, had angered China by asking a UN-backed tribunal to outlaw Beijing’s claims to most of the South China Sea.
A July international arbitration ruling gave Manila a sweeping victory but Duterte vowed not to “taunt or flaunt” it as he sought to improve economic relations, while praising China’s support for his deadly drug war.
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 television.
The meeting took place after a US think tank released images Wednesday that appeared to show China had installed “significant” defensive weapons on artificial islands it had controversially built over contested reefs.
Philippine Defense Secretary 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.
The Philippines will host the inaugural meeting of the JCGC in February.
‘PH can’t stop China’
While expressing concern over the reported Chinese installation of weapons on artificial islands in the West Philippine Sea, Foreign Affairs Secretary Perfecto Yasay Jr. on Friday said there was nothing the Philippines could do to stop it.
“We cannot stop China at this point in time … we will continue to pursue peaceful means at which all of these can be prevented,” Yasay said in a news conference in Singapore.
Asked if the Philippines will lodge a diplomatic protest, Yasay said the country would continue with peaceful means to resolve the dispute.
“For the Philippines, we have our bilateral engagements with China. We want to make sure that there will be no further actions that will heighten the tensions between the two countries, particularly in the Scarborough Shoal,” Yasay added.
Yasay was referring to the rich fishing ground off the coast of Zambales, which was seized by China in 2012.
Yasay reiterated that the dispute had been decided by the arbitral tribunal in July, and that enforcement of that ruling would be pursued by the Philippines in the future.
“In the meantime, we have placed this at the back burner without compromising our rights as declared by the arbitral tribunal insofar its decision of July 12, 2016 is concerned,” Yasay added.