MANILA - The Philippines and China are trying to restore friendly ties despite tensions over disputed territory in the South China Sea. At the same time, Manila is welcoming U.S. plans to shift more of its naval power to the Asia Pacific. But Washington’s so-called pivot toward Asia is making Beijing wary.
The Philippines recently pulled back its navy from the disputed Scarborough Shoals where it had been in a standoff with Chinese vessels.
Instead, the civilian-run Coast Guard is now in charge of security. Coast Guard Vice Admiral Edmund Tan says the Philippines is trying to avoid armed confrontation.
"We are armed, but we are not showing it," said Tan. "In fact, we have gun mounts. We remove it from the mounts. Because we are civilians, actually. That's why we are there.”
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The Philippines also wants to modernize its outdated defenses to better protect its territory.
So far, that has mainly meant relying on refurbished U.S. Coast Guard ships. But authorities welcome plans to shift the majority of U.S. naval forces to the Pacific by 2020 - a move that some in China see as trying to contain Beijing.
"The Asia-Pacific is the region where Chinese and U.S. interests most overlap, and we welcome the United States to play a constructive role," said Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin, "we also hope that the United States will respect the interests and concerns of all sides in the Asia-Pacific, including China.”
James Clad, with the Center for Naval Analysis in Washington, says U.S. forces are focused on ensuring freedom of navigation, which is critical for China’s trade.
“So if there are problems in the South China Sea created by the Chinese that would have a boomerang effect on them because it would raise insurance premiums on all these ships that come and carry their trade and it would be rapidly, vastly more expensive to trade with China,” said Clad.
The Philippines’ Subic Bay for nearly 50 years was the largest Pacific base for the U.S. Navy.
Philippine opposition led to its closure in 1992, but U.S. ships still make port calls, including a nuclear-powered submarine that docked during Manila’s off-shore standoff with China.
Subic Bay Chairman Roberto Garcia says the visits are an important symbol.
“Well, for the Filipinos I think it gives them a sense of reassurance," said Garcia. "I mean, realistically speaking, we are in no position to oppose China. So, the presence of the U.S. Naval forces, air forces and our mutual defense treaty is, I think, a source of comfort to the Filipinos.”
The Philippines and the United States have agreed to increase U.S. Navy visits to Subic, now a successful special economic zone.