MANILA - This week the Philippines president was in Japan, where he spoke to friendly audiences about China’s expansive maritime territorial claims. Tensions over territorial disputes with China are building in both Tokyo and Manila, but that is doing little to slow Beijing’s efforts to build artificial islands in the South China Sea.
Boycotting products from China
Protesting Scores of protesters waved placards in sweltering heat outside the Chinese consular office in Metro Manila Thursday. They oppose China’s rapid reclamation work on ever-expanding islands that the Philippines claims in the South China Sea, locally called the West Philippine Sea.
High school history teacher Raymond Basilio said last week he decided to protest by giving up milk, canned goods and noodles from China. “Most of the products in the Philippines right now are produced from China so if we Filipinos will start boycotting that, maybe that will say something about them,” he said.
Overlapping claims in the sea
Dispute over China is the Philippines third largest trade partner. But Manila is in a heated diplomatic row with Beijing over ownership of what were once tiny outcroppings in the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea.
China claims nearly all of the resource-rich and heavily travelled sea, saying it has “indisputable sovereignty” there. Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam also have overlapping claims in the sea.
The Philippines claims six of the seven rocks that China is augmenting into small islands covering about 800 hectares. Several of them will be large enough to accommodate naval ships and military airstrips.
In recent weeks U.S. officials have increased their public opposition to China’s land reclamation, sending U.S. surveillance flights near the islands, where China’s navy insists they leave.
Forging a Visiting Forces Agreement
In the Philippines, there is broad support for opposing China, but some like New Alliance Party Secretary General Renato Reyes said Manila should do so largely without relying on U.S. help. “The Filipino people will not allow incursions into our territorial waters, incursions into our Exclusive Economic Zone. We will not allow the driving away of our fishermen and we oppose the aggressive reclamation that is being done,” he stated.
Getting outside support in the sea dispute was high on Philippine President Benigno Aquino’s agenda during a state visit to Japan this week. After their meeting, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Aquino put out a joint statement expressing “serious concern” over the reclamation work.
Early in the visit President Aquino called on the U.S. to take a bigger role in securing the disputed sea. Then in a speech before Japan’s Diet (parliament), he likened the reclamation work to Germany’s expansionist activities prior to World War II. He asked whether stopping Adolf Hitler at the time would have helped avoid the war altogether.
Thursday China’s foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying expressed dismay over the remarks.
She said, “I am deeply shocked at the absurd and unreasonable remarks by the relevant Philippine leader and express my strong dissatisfaction and opposition. A review of the unfolding of the South China Sea disputes tells us it is the Philippines that has been illegally occupying some islets of China's Nansha Islands [Spratly Islands] by force since the 1990s."
Friday Aquino told Japan-based journalists that Manila and Tokyo would be forging a Visiting Forces Agreement, a welcome addition for a country whose military budget is one of the smallest in Southeast Asia.
Security Analyst Rommel Banlaoi of the Philippine Institute for Peace, Violence and Terrorism Research said strengthening the relationship with Japan will help give the Philippines some leverage in dealing with China. However he said opposing China comes at a cost.
“The current government is pursuing an excessive pro-Americanism in its foreign and security policy. So the Philippine government embraces its alliance with the United States at the expense of its diplomatic relationship with China, which at present is at [its] lowest point in their history,” said Banlaoi.
Manila is pursuing a case against Beijing at the Permanent Court of Arbitration, questioning what it calls China’s “excessive claims” in the South China Sea. China rejects arbitration and is not participating in the case, which is expected to conclude early next year.