Image credits: Jimbo Albano
According to the Associated Press, President Aquino mentioned the territorial dispute with China and its activities in the South China Sea eight times in two days.
Mr. Aquino was quoted as saying, “Why bar us from our own waters?” and “Aquino dares China: Take lead in sea-row pact.” He further said in Malaysia, regarding China, that “The world is watching and expects no less from a responsible global leader.”
US President Barack Obama also said at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) meetings in Malaysia, “For the sake of regional stability the claimants should halt reclamation, construction and militarization of disputed areas.” The US further pledged some $250 million to regional nations, of which Philippine government officials were excited to learn “The US will also be giving the Philippines the most support among countries in the region—$79 million—to beef up maritime security.”
Administration supporters were extremely pleased with President Aquino’s “tough talk” and in-your-face approach to dealing with the Chinese. Those counting on the backing of the US in the Philippines’s dispute with China took heart when President Obama said, China must “stop land reclamation” in the area. And this: “We have a treaty obligation, an ironclad commitment to the defense of our ally, the Philippines.”
As if the Chinese had read the script beforehand, they waited until the Philippines and the US have taken their best shot, and then responded.
While the US was promising to continue its “Freedom of Navigation” drills in the area, the Chinese announced that they would be spending $2 billion to purchase 24 Russian-made Sukhoi Su-35S fighter jets comparable to almost anything the US currently has in service. Further, the Chinese and Russians have been negotiating this contract since 2011.
The US pledged $250 million to countries in the region. In Malaysia, China offered $10 billion in infrastructure loans and another $560 million in additional aid to underdeveloped Asean members.
In a further opportunity to simultaneously ignore and counter Philippine and US statements, China’s Vice Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin said, “Building and maintaining necessary military facilities, this is what is required for China’s national defense.” China plans to “expand and upgrade” the civilian facilities on the island and “Washington was testing Beijing with its insistence on ‘freedom of navigation’ patrols in the strategic waterway.”
Vietnam and the Philippines have the greatest and most immediate stake in what happens in the disputed territories. At the Apec 2015 meeting, a statement was signed between the two nations for the “Establishment of a Strategic Partnership.”
However, international news services also noted with some emphasis that “Aquino and [Chinese President] Xi have not had a formal bilateral meeting.” And “The two presidents only had an informal 10-minute conversation on the sidelines of the Apec summit in Beijing last year. This year, officials said Aquino and Xi talked for two minutes during the Apec meeting in Manila.”
Now, with all the rhetoric and posturing at these regional conferences over, the critical question is, what does the Philippine government do next?