MANILA, PHILIPPINES - The risks of a "miscalculation" and armed conflict have risen in the disputed South China Sea with a militarily stronger China now able to challenge the United States, which used to be the dominant power in the strategic waterway, the Philippine envoy to Beijing said Monday.
Ambassador Chito Sta. Romana said the balance of power was shifting with the two global powers vying for control of the waters, adding that the Philippines should not get entangled in the increasingly tense maritime rivalry.
China claims virtually the entire South China Sea, where the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei also have overlapping claims, and it has built seven mostly submerged reefs into islands that reportedly can be used as forward air naval bases and have been installed with a missile defense system.
The U.S. Navy has sailed warships on "freedom of navigation" operations near the artificial islands, which China has protested as U.S. intervention in an Asian conflict.
"Whereas before the South China Sea was dominated by the U.S. 7th Fleet, now the Chinese navy is starting to challenge the dominance," Sto. Romana told a news forum in Manila. "I think we will see a shift in the balance of power."
"It is not the case that the South China Sea is now a Chinese lake, not at all," Sto. Romana said. "Look at the U.S. aircraft carrier, it's still going through the South China Sea," he added, referring to the USS Carl Vinson that recently patrolled the disputed waters and is currently on a visit to the Philippines.
He compared the two powers to elephants fighting and trampling on the grass and said, "What we don't want is for us to be the grass."
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte's policy of befriending China has worked, Sto. Romana said, citing Beijing's decision to lift its blockade around Philippine-occupied Second Thomas Shoal, where the Philippine military can now freely send new supplies to Filipino marines guarding the disputed area.
China has also allowed Filipino fishermen into another disputed area, Scarborough Shoal, after Duterte visited Beijing and raised the issue with Chinese President Xi Jinping. Xi reportedly told Duterte, "Give me a few days, I'll take care of this," Sto. Romana quoted Duterte as saying about the meeting with his Chinese counterpart a few months after he won the Philippine presidency in 2016.
Duterte said in a speech late Monday that Xi promised him that China won't build any structure on Scarborough and added that the Chinese leader should be trusted because "he's a man of honor."
The president jokingly told an audience of mostly Chinese Filipino businessmen that the Philippines could solve its money problems by being turned into a province of wealthy China, though he erroneously referred to it as "the Republic of China," which is Taiwan's official name. China rejects any insinuation that Taiwan, which it considers a province, is an independent country.
China took control of uninhabited Scarborough Shoal off the northwestern Philipppines after a tense standoff in 2012.
In January, China accused the U.S. of trespassing when the guided missile destroyer USS Hopper sailed near Scarborough.
China has also relayed to Filipino officials its opposition to the Philippine military's deployment of a Japanese-donated Beechcraft King Air patrol plane in late January to Scarborough, a Philippine official said on condition of anonymity because of a lack of authority to discuss the issue publicly.
U.S. President Donald Trump's administration has outlined a security strategy that emphasized countering China's rise and reinforcing the U.S. presence in the Indo-Pacific region, where Beijing and Washington have accused each other of stoking a dangerous military buildup and sought wider influence.
Washington has no claim in the South China Sea but has declared a peaceful resolution and freedom of navigation are in its national interest.
U.S. Navy Lt. Cmdr. Tim Hawkins told The Associated Press on board the USS Carl Vinson on Saturday that the Navy has carried out routine patrols at sea and in the air in the region for 70 years to promote security and guarantee the unimpeded flow of trade and would continue to do so.
"International law allows us to operate here, allows us to fly here, allows us to train here, allows us to sail here, and that's what we're doing and we're going to continue to do that," Hawkins said on the flight deck of the 95,000-ton warship brimming with F18 fighter jets and other combat aircraft.