Theresa Lazaro (L), Philippines’ Undersecretary for Bilateral Relations and Asian Affairs of the Department of Foreign Affairs, shakes hands with China’s Vice Foreign Minister Sun Weidong prior to the start of the Philippines-China Foreign Ministry consultation meeting in Manila on March 23, 2023. TED ALJIBE / POOL / AFP
Senior Chinese and Filipino diplomats met in Manila on Thursday to review their relations amid thorny issues, including Beijing’s alarm over a Philippine decision to allow the United States military to expand its presence to a northern region facing the Taiwan Strait and escalating spats in the disputed South China Sea.
Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Sun Weidong and Philippine Foreign Undersecretary Theresa Lazaro led the talks aimed at assessing overall relations on Thursday.
The discussions would focus on the long-seething territorial spats in the disputed waterway on Friday, the Department of Foreign Affairs in Manila said.
But even as the talks opened in Manila, the Chinese military said it warned a US warship to “leave” waters in the China Sea on Thursday, claims swiftly denied as “false” by American forces.
The 23rd China-Philippines Foreign Ministry Consultation started with diplomatic pleasantries and handshakes in front of the media without any mention of the sensitive issue.
But during the closed-door meeting, the Chinese delegation expressed their strong opposition to the US military presence in the Philippines, a Filipino official told The Associated Press without elaborating.
The official, who attended the meeting, spoke on condition of anonymity for lack of authority to discuss what transpired in the talks.
Sun and Lazaro will meet again on Friday for the 7th Bilateral Consultation Meeting on the South China Sea.
In his opening statement, Lazaro said the “Philippines attaches so much importance to this mechanism as our discussion here allows us to cover the overall relations between our two countries and as compared to the bilateral consultation mechanism in the South China Sea which truly covers the maritime issues.”
Sun stressed the need to follow up on the “important consensus” reached between Chinese President Xi Jinping and President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. during the latter’s visit to China in January.
“We need to deepen our comprehensive strategic cooperation and enhance our cooperation in various practical areas and properly deal with our differences into friendly consultation,” Sun said.
“In light with this fast-changing international landscape, China stands ready to work with countries in the neighborhood, including the Philippines, to enhance our solidarity and cooperation, communication and coordination to jointly uphold our shared interests and peace and stability of the region,” he said.
The territorial conflicts between the two nations have persisted as a major irritant in relations, with Manila filing at least 77 of more than 200 diplomatic protests against China’s increasingly assertive actions in the disputed waters since last year alone.
That included a February 6 incident when a Chinese coast guard ship aimed a military-grade laser that briefly blinded some crew members of a Philippine Coast Guard vessel off a disputed shoal.
Marcos summoned the Chinese ambassador to Manila to express concern over the incident, but Beijing said the Philippine vessel intruded into Chinese territorial waters and its coast guard used a harmless laser gadget to monitor the vessel’s movement.
Early last month, the Marcos administration announced it would allow rotating batches of American forces to indefinitely station in four more Philippine military camps.
Those are in addition to five local bases earlier designated under a 2014 Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) between the longtime allies.
Marcos said Wednesday the four new military sites would include areas in the northern Philippines.
That location has infuriated Chinese officials because it would provide US forces with a staging ground close to southern China and Taiwan.
The Americans would also have access to military areas in Palawan, Marcos said, adding that the US military presence under the EDCA was aimed at boosting coastal defense.
Palawan faces the South China Sea, a key passage for global trade that Beijing claims virtually in its entirety, but a United Nations-backed arbitration tribunal ruled in 2016 that the historical claim had no legal basis under the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Seas.
China had dismissed the ruling, which Washington and other Western governments recognize, and continues to defy it.
When asked to react to the Philippine decision, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin told a news briefing in Beijing on Wednesday that defense cooperation between countries “needs to be conducive to regional peace and stability and not targeted at or harmful to the interests of any third party.”
Wang warned countries in the region “to remain vigilant and avoid being coerced or used by the US” without naming the Philippines.
A recent statement issued by the Chinese Embassy in Manila was more blunt and warned that the Manila government’s security cooperation with Washington “will drag the Philippines into the abyss of geopolitical strife and damage its economic development at the end of the day.”
The Biden administration has been strengthening an arc of military alliances in the Indo-Pacific to better counter China, including in any future confrontation over Taiwan.
The US moves dovetail with Philippine efforts to shore up its territorial defense amid its disputes with China in the South China Sea.
In Beijing, the Southern Theater Command of China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) said the USS Milius, a guided missile destroyer, on Thursday entered waters around the Paracel Islands, which are also claimed by Vietnam.
The PLA “organized sea and air forces to track and monitor [the ship] in accordance with the law” and “warned it to leave,” spokesman Tian Junli said.
The vessel “made an illegal incursion into Chinese territorial waters… without permission from the Chinese government, harming peace and stability” in the region, he said.
The US military denied the claims, telling the Agence France-Presse that “the PRC’s statement is false,” using the acronym for the People’s Republic of China.
The vessel “is conducting routine operations in the South China Sea and was not expelled,” said a spokesman for US Indo-Pacific Command.
“The United States will continue to fly, sail, and operate wherever international law allows,” the spokesman said.
Also on Thursday, the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) said it deployed one of its patrol vessels to Sandy Cay and Pag-asa Island in the West Philippine Sea early this week to carry out President Marcos’ order to strengthen the PCG’s presence in the country’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ).
The PCG said the BRP Melchora Aquino spotted several Chinese vessels in the waters of Kalayaan Island Group.
The PCG also monitored eight foreign fishing vessels through its Radio Detection and Ranging and Automatic Identification System.
It made a visual confirmation that the vessels were fishing boats in Menzies Reef.
Two more foreign fishing vessels were spotted in the waters of Lawak Island.
Sandy Cay, Pag-asa Island, Menzies Reef and the islands of Lawak and Likas are located inside the 200-mile EEZ.