07:20 GMT +318 October 2019
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    President of the Philippines Rodrigo Duterte (R) and Chinese President Xi Jinping shake hands as they attend a welcoming ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China, October 20, 2016.

    This is What Philippines Chooses Between Peace With China, Territorial Claims

    © AFP 2019 / THOMAS PETER
    Asia & Pacific
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    Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has cancelled a planned visit to a disputed island in the South China Sea. Experts told Sputnik that the decision signals that he does not want further confrontation with China.

    Last week, Duterte ordered the country’s military to occupy all Philippine-claimed islands in the South China Sea.

    He added that he ordered building structures and raising the Philippine flag on the islands claimed by Manila.

    He also said that he would visit the island of Thitu, the largest of the Philippine-controlled Spratly Islands, to raise the Philippine flag there. The visit was planned to take place on June 12 when the country marks its 119th anniversary of independence.

    According to Reuters, the Philippine president decided to overturn his controversial decision after Beijing warned him against the visit.

    "Because of our friendship with China and because we value your friendship I will not go there to raise the Philippine flag," Duterte said in a speech before the Filipino community in Riyadh on Wednesday.

    He said that Beijing warned him that "there will likely be trouble" if every head of state of the contending parties went to the disputed islands and raised their flags.

    China and some other regional players, including Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines, have differences over the maritime borders and areas of responsibility in the South and East China Sea.

    Beijing says that the Philippines and Vietnam deliberately use United States’ support to escalate tensions in the region. In July 2016, the Hague's Permanent Court of Arbitration ruled that China has no rights for territorial claims in the South China Sea. According to the ruling, the disputed Spratly Islets are not an exceptional economic zone. China has not recognized the ruling.

    Alexei Fenenko, an expert in the international relations department at Moscow State University, noted that Duterte backtracking on his earlier promises signals that Manila does not want to be dragged in a military conformation with Beijing.

    "The idea is clear. The sides want to develop dialogue over the disputed islands. None of the sides wants war. So, everything is being done to prevent a conflict so far. However, this means that the situation could aggravate at any moment, when there will no choice. In this situation, a military conflict would be possible," Fenenko told Sputnik China.

    According to the expert, Washington does not want a military confrontation in the South China Sea and does not want pressure the Philippines on the matter.

    "If they increased pressure over the Philippines this could result in military actions. Why would the US need this? There are no guarantees that Washington’s allies could win this war," he said.

    Fenenko suggested that Duterte’s decision will be welcomed by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

    ASEAN wants to build constructive relations with China and is not interested in a rift with Beijing.

    The expert suggested that Washington wants a rift between ASEAN and China and this is why the US will continue its support for the Philippines.

    "Their goal is to form a perimeter to deter China. It does not matter what countries will be part of this perimeter, the Philippines, Vietnam or Japan. At the same time, Beijing understands that it is difficult to pressure Manila because there is a military alliance between the US and the Philippines. This alliance is built on military cooperation and friendship against China," Fenenko pointed out.

    Manila will have to find out how to continue allied relations with the US and cooperate with China at the same time, according to Elena Fomicheva, an expert at the Institute for Oriental Studies, the Russian Academy of Sciences.

    According to her, Duterte is hesitating between decreasing ties with Washington and the growing influence of China. Moreover, the Philippines and China have a territorial dispute, and this is why Duterte tries to make "political maneuvers."

    "Since the Philippines is the ASEAN Chair this year, Duterte has to work out a new approach to the South China Sea territorial dispute. He’s trying to do that. Manila is testing their ASEAN allies in terms of anti-China actions. On the other hand, Duterte is watching China’s reaction. This is the reason behind his hesitation," Fomicheva explained.

    Decisions in ASEAN are made by a collective consensus, and Duterte understands that such countries as Cambodia, Laos and Thailand will not support a hardline anti-China approach.

    "The current situation is that ASEAN members want to find the balance point. Duterte also wants to be part of this strategy," Fomicheva said.

    Shen Shishun, a senior expert at the Chinese Institute of International Studies, said that Duterte’s decision is indicative of his strategy.

    "This is not a sign of weakness. This is the result of his strategic thoughts. None of the countries involved in the South China Sea dispute wants provocative actions. Duterte cannot act recklessly to provoke a conflict with China. Since he became president he has stood for stable and friendly relations with Beijing. As a politician, he makes controversial statements but he should be judged by his actions," the expert said.

    According to Shen, the Philippines is set to develop cooperation with China in the future.

    China appreciates Duterte's decision to cancel a planned visit to an island in the South China Sea Spratly Islands archipelago, Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Lu Kang said Thursday.

    "We are seeing that the situation in the South China Sea is improving, relations between China and the Philippines are improving. We hope that the Philippine side will work with us to resolve disputes in an appropriate manner. The Chinese side is pleased to see the Philippine president willing to resolve differences," he said during a briefing.


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    cooperation, territorial dispute, Rodrigo Duterte, South China Sea, China, Philippines
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