Aquino seeks to defuse tensions with China

May 19, 2015 08:39
President Aquino insists armed conflict with China is not inevitable. His new diplomacy comes as the Philippines hosts the next APEC summit which China's Xi Jinping is expected to attend later this year. Photo: Bloomberg

Philippine President Benigno Aquino III is winding back his rhetoric amid growing tensions in the South China Sea that could trigger conflict with Beijing.

Aquino played down the prospect of a military clash, insisting confrontation was not inevitable, the Financial Tmes reported, citing local media reports.

The comments came after Aquino had repeatedly warned China about its activities in disputed waters.

In April, he said the country’s territorial ambitions “should engender fear for the rest of the world”.

Security experts say Aquino will have to be pragmatic.

“The business community in the Philippines and leftist parties are concerned by any issues with China,” said James Hardy, an expert on Asia-Pacific military and geopolitical developments at IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly.

“Aquino has to be realistic about his government’s rhetoric [with] China because of all the South China Sea claimants.”

Aquino may also be trying to lay down some diplomatic markers, according to Richard Javad Heydarian, political science professor at Manila’s De La Salle University.

“With [President] Xi Jinping set to visit the Philippines for APEC later this year, Aquino is exploring some minimal diplomatic engagement.”

Manila has orchestrated a series of initiatives to internationalize the deadlock amid China’s land reclamation projects around the disputed Spratly Islands, to which Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam also lay claim.

Last week, Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert Del Rosario made a high-profile visit to Washington to seek deeper US engagement on the matter.

Aquino also recently concluded a trip to the US and Canada after meeting Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper to discuss the dispute.

The Philippine navy this month held its first joint naval exercise with Japan in the South China Sea while the armed forces chief visited the Spratly island of Pagasa and reportedly said building a new naval base in the archipelago was a “top priority” — moves likely to antagonise Beijing.

The US looks keen to minimise the chances of a flare-up as the invective between Beijing and Manila becomes progressively more acrimonious.

President Barack Obama’s pivot to Asia was visible after the US navy dispatched the USS Fort Worth to patrol the Spratly Islands this month.

However, Hardy cautioned that Manila should not expect too much from the US.

“Bringing in the US is a non-starter as it is not going to defend Philippine claims; at most, it will assert international maritime ‘rules of the road’ and freedom of navigation.”

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