Philippines bends to China on Spratlys; open to joint development

Manila appears to be easing its hardline stance towards Beijing and may be willing to jointly develop oil and natural gas resources in the hotly disputed Spratlys Islands in the South China Sea.

"We are amenable to the [Chinese offer of joint development] for as long as it conforms to our laws," said Philippines Defense Minister Voltaire Gazmin. "What is ours is ours. China can be allowed to have a joint venture, but it should be based on our rules," he told the audience at the graduation ceremony of the Philippine Military Academy on March 17.

If enacted, the policy would reverse much of the country’s previous unyielding stance on the matter. Of the many countries that dispute China’s expansive claim over the South China Sea, the Philippines and Vietnam had been two of most obstinate.

Last year, Beijing raised the prospect of war against the Philippines through its official Global Times newspaper over Manila’s defiance of China’s claim and for inviting international energy companies to develop gas and oil resources in or near the area.

And only one month ago, U.S. and Philippine naval and amphibious forces conducted joint exercises in the area with a special emphasis on repelling forces targeting ocean oil platforms.

Since the U.S. declared a military and strategic pivot to Asia-Pacific last year, China has stepped up its diplomatic offense in the region.

China recently dispatched a new ambassador, Ma Keqing, to Manila and gave her more clout to vigorously push the Philippines into one-on-one negotiations without involving other nations, especially the United States. Apparently, the new strategy is working.

When asked about China’s skyrocketing defense budget, Gazmin expressed understanding. "It is in China’s interest to increase its [military] budget," he said, adding, "for as long as there is transparency, we should not be worried about it."

Beginning March 18, an unprecedentedly large Philippine military delegation of 148 officers arrived in China for a five-day visit. The delegation included mid-ranking officers from all branches of the Philippine defense forces and was led by Col. Ramon Loria, head of the Academic Center of the Command General Staff College of the Armed Forces of the Philippines.

"The visit to China of the biggest delegation so far of Philippine military officers to China showcases the strong, vibrant and comprehensive relations between the two countries as they celebrate the Years of Friendly Exchanges," an official statement from the Philippine Information Agency proclaimed.

Beijing and Manila declared 2012 and 2013 as "Years of Friendly Exchanges" that will involve many ceremonies.


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