BILATERAL ties between the Philippines and China have begun to warm up as soon as President Rodrigo Duterte stepped into office.

Following his early anti-American outbursts, Duterte vowed to carry out an independent foreign policy, one that seeks to distance Manila from Washington, but makes overtures toward Beijing.

True enough, Chinese investors are lining up to explore business opportunities in the Philippines, with new projects worth at least $10 billion expected to be infused in the country’s aviation, oil downstream, renewable energy, iron and steel, and shipbuilding/ship repair industries.

While the bilateral relations are blossoming, a cloud on the horizon appears as a reported incursion of Chinese vessels in the Benham Rise, a 13-million hectare mineral-rich undersea region east of Luzon. Beijing maintained that it was only “exercising navigation freedoms and the right to innocent passage.”

Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang also said that the Philippines cannot declare Benham Rise as part of its territory despite a 2012-ruling declaring that the resources-rich waters as part of the Philippine territory.

Duterte then revealed that he knew that China would be sending survey ships to Benham Rise. The president remains confident that China will not build facilities on Benham Rise the same way that they did with the features in the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea.

The recent incursion is a reminder that another international court exists, where the ruling favors the Philippines’ maritime case against China over its expansive claim in the disputed water of the South China Sea. The Philippines has pleaded its case to the International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea (ITLOS), an intergovernmental organization created through the directive of the Third United Nations Conference on the Law of the Sea and established by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), signed at Montego Bay, Jamaica, on Dec. 10, 1982.

The two countries have competing claims to some parts of the South China Sea. China claims the largest swathe of the strategic water, which is believed to have significant oil and gas deposits. It has continuously rejected other nations’ claim (including Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei) on the South China Sea.

It has also been busy militarizing the strategic waters in the last few years through the creation of new outposts by piling sand atop reefs and atolls, and then adding buildings, ports and airstrips big enough to handle bombers and fighter jets.

Despite continuous calls from the international community to halt the construction, China remained adamant over its assertion to the South West Philippine (South China) Sea. It maintained that its military activities are consistent with its position that the construction of artificial islands was designed to provide public service to the region by helping ships and fishermen and disaster relief efforts.

Admitting that the Philippines is militarily outmatched by China, Duterte is bent on discussing and resolving the issues in the South China Sea through dialogue. Let’s hope that this renewed partnership with China will facilitate regional integration and create dynamic and stable domestic economies—benefitting the needs of both their people. (AJPress)

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