CHINESE Ambassador to the Philippines Zhao Jianhua offered over $14 million worth of weapons and equipment at no cost to the Philippine government on Monday, December 19 for use in President Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs.
Defense Minister Delfin Lorenzana also said that Beijing is prepared to extend as much as $500 million in soft loans to Manila for additional equipment during a press briefing on Tuesday, December 20.
“We might get some small arms, fast boats and night vision goggles because $14.4 million is not that much,” Lorenzana told reporters on Tuesday. “We will finalize the deal before the end of the year.”
The aid illustrates a warming of ties between the Philippines and China, which had been strained over competing territorial claims at Scarborough Shoal and other sites in the South China sea.
Duterte suggested that Beijing and Manila work together to develop and cultivate currently contested natural assets during a speech to government employees on Monday.
He and Foreign Affairs Secretary Perfecto Yasay Jr. reiterated the Philippine government’s reluctance to provoke an armed confrontation with southeast Asia’s largest military and economic power. They also said they had no immediate plans to challenge Chinese maritime assertions.
“This we will continue to do for the foreseeable future, until such time that we achieve a trust level that will allow us to discuss the more sensitive issues in our bilateral relations,” said Yasay in a statement on Monday.
In spite of a diplomatic pivot toward China, administration officials say they still stand by the legitimacy of a ruling from the UN Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) that largely sides with the Philippines in territorial disputes.
The United States has expressed support for the PCA’s authority. However, criticism from American officials and policy makers regarding possible human rights abuses occurring amidst the Philippines’ crackdown on illegal drugs have driven a wedge between Manila and Washington.
In late October, U.S. Senator Ben Cardin (D-MD) moved to block the sale of 26,000 rifles to the Philippine National Police (PNP), citing humanitarian concerns. In response, Duterte announced the cancellation of the arms deal during a televised speech on Monday, November 1.
Manila has announced a number of policy decisions this year that would end cooperative arrangements between the Philippine and U.S. militaries.
On Monday, December 12, Malacañang representatives announced they would prohibit the launch of American freedom of navigation patrols from bases in the Philippines. The air and naval missions have elicited condemnation from China, which views them as a challenge to their claims to Sovereignty over the South China Sea.
Duterte told reporters that American forces should prepare to leave the Philippines and promised the eventual repeal or abrogation of the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) shortly after landing in Davao on Saturday, December 17. The bilateral deal provides legal status to U.S. soldiers stationed in the Philippines and gives American military courts jurisdiction over crimes they commit while they are there.
Prior allegations from the Philippine government accusing Chinese nationals of playing a significant role in the island nation’s illicit drug trade had drawn dismay from officials in China. However, China has emerged as a substantial sponsor of the Philippines’ nationwide crackdown on crime.
In addition, a chinese businessman with an estimated net worth of $3.9 billion, Huang Rulun, funded the construction of a large drug rehabilitation center at Fort Magsaysay in Nueva Ecija earlier this year, according to Reuters and other sources. The facility opened its doors on Tuesday, November 9 and is capable of treating 10,000 patients.
Those who would prefer to see Duterte take a more assertive stance in the country’s territorial disputes have expressed trepidation in the face of growing cooperation between Manila and Beijing.
“Now, we seem to be on a track to relinquish those gains that have been made to benefit our people,” Albert Del Rosario, the foreign secretary under former president Benigno Aquino III, said in a statement on Monday.
The diplomat who presented the Philippines’ case to the PCA in 2014 added that “we appear to be well on the way to placing the country’s future in the hands of our northern neighbor who…is now effectively demeaning our stand for upholding the rule of law…”