Philippines joining Beijing’s South China Sea drill ‘shows nations are hedging bets’ in Sino-US tussle


Southeast Asian countries also cooperating with US and Japan to keep China in check in the region, analysts say

The assessment follows Monday’s decision by the Philippines to join a regional military exercise involving China and other Asean countries later this month, and comes days after a Chinese destroyer and an American warship came within metres of colliding in the South China Sea.

The drill, from October 22 to 29, would be Manila’s first military exercise with Beijing, and will form the second phase of a tabletop maritime exercise China held in August with several Asean nations in Singapore, in which they focused on simulating joint search and rescue operations under the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea.

The upcoming naval drill will be held in waters off Zhanjiang city, in southern China’s Guangdong province, after Chinese and Asean officials agreed not to stage it in areas that are the subject of territorial disputes.

The Philippines’ participation can be seen as a marked change in Manila’s stance towards China regarding the South China Sea since Rodrigo Duterte became president.

However, Dai Fan, a Southeast Asian affairs expert from Jinan University in Guangzhou, Guangdong, said Asean countries were also exploring ties with Japan and the US to counter China’s rising influence in the region.

“Asean [members] are deliberately cooperating with external countries like Japan and the US to offset Chinese sway, especially regarding the South China Sea, and US and Japan have long been encouraging Asean countries to guard their own interests against China,” said Dai.

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Manila and Washington have stepped up cooperation, agreeing to hold 281 joint drills in 2019, up from 261 this year. That is also a shift from when Duterte first came to office and scaled back aid from US.

Vietnam, another vocal claimant to disputed areas of the South China Sea, has enhanced cooperation with Japan. Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc visited Tokyo on Monday and called on Japan to enhance its role in promoting peace and stability in the South China Sea.