MANILA: The Philippines has accepted an invitation from China to attend the 70th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese navy, amid a maritime dispute over the South China Sea.
Defence Minister Delfin Lorenzana told Channel NewsAsia the Philippines is sending a ship to the Chinese event in April this year in what he believes will be a historic first.
Lorenzana said he was informed of the Philippines Navy initiative to send a vessel "upon the invitation of the PLA Navy".
Analyst Lucio Pitlo III, research fellow at the Asia-Pacific Pathways to Progress Foundation, said the move signalled the Philippines’ openness to engage China even in the security domain, despite what he called the “threat perception of Chinese activities in the West Philippine Sea".
Many Filipinos prefer calling the Philippines’ claim on the larger South China Sea - other territories of which are also claimed by other states - as the West Philippines Sea.
"It also suggests that the country is recognising and learning from the experience of other Southeast Asian states like Vietnam, Indonesia, Thailand and Malaysia, which had earlier engaged China in the security field through purchase of Chinese military assets, holding joint exercises with China, hosting goodwill visits of PLA Navy and attending China-organised security forums such as the Xiangshan Forum," Pitlo added.
PIVOT TO CHINA
Since he took over in 2016, Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte has cozied up to the neighbouring economic giant.
In what he calls an "independent foreign policy", Duterte has openly veered away from traditional allies like the European Union and the United States in favour of Russia and China.
Chinese loans have since been pledged for Philippine infrastructure projects and an agreement was signed during Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Manila in November last year that laid out the framework for a possible joint maritime oil and gas exploration by both nations.
Although the US remains the country's only military treaty ally with joint drills held each year, Duterte has in the past threatened to abort these drills.
The yearly military drills known as Balikatan or 'shoulder to shoulder' were downscaled in 2017 upon Duterte’s directive to exclude maritime operations and instead focus on counter-terrorism, humanitarian and disaster response drills, despite tensions over the South China Sea.
The Philippines and the US also have a standing military agreement that allows US forces on Philippine soil and permits US construction of facilities in Philippine military bases for the use of both countries.
The Philippines and the US have fought side by side in World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War, although Lorenzana had said that the Philippines has called for a review of the two nations’ mutual defence treaty.
Duterte has been sceptical of the West after criticism over his flagship anti-drug campaign. State figures show the campaign has claimed more than 5,000 lives of 'suspected drug personalities', mostly from the poor.
PHILIPPINE APPROACH TO CHINA
Critics fear Manila’s warming ties with Beijing might compromise progress after it secured a favourable arbitral tribunal ruling over its stake on the disputed waters.
An international arbitral tribunal in 2016 ruled largely in favour of the Philippine claim in the South China Sea, but the ruling was rejected by Beijing.
In a speech before foreign correspondents on Jan 17, Lorenzana said the Philippines would raise the issue of the ruling with China but said it was not yet the time to do so.
China and other Southeast Asian nations are in the process of negotiating a crucial text that will lay out the norms on the conduct of states in the South China Sea.
“The goal is to pursue functional cooperation with China and other claimant-countries,” he said.
"I would like to emphasise that the Philippines continues to view the arbitral tribunal ruling as valid and legitimate. We have not, and we will not, surrender any part of our territory.”