The United States, the Philippines’ oldest defensive ally, will not ask Manila to take sides in a perceived geopolitical rivalry with China, a senior US diplomat said Friday.
Manila must make decisions in its national interest, said Daniel Kritenbrink, US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, as the two longtime allies reaffirmed a decades-old defense partnership amid Chinese challenges in the disputed South China Sea.
“Everywhere I go, I’m asked, ‘Are you trying to force us to choose between you and China?’ That’s not our game,” he said at a public forum hosted by the US Embassy at De La Salle University in Manila.
As a free nation, the Philippines can make decisions that benefit its interests, said Kritenbrink, who was in Manila for the 10th Bilateral Strategic Dialogue. The two-day dialogue, which ended on Friday, serves as a forum for policy-making between the two countries.
“We don’t want you to choose, we want you to have choices. We want you to be able to make your own decisions and free from coercion. If you can do that, we can do that, together we are better off,” says Kritenrbink.
Theresa Lazaro, Acting Undersecretary of State of the Philippines, joined Kritenbrink at the forum.
“The Philippines and the United States are in a really good place right now and we needed to meet to take that relationship to even greater heights,” Lazaro said. “We have agreed on several key initiatives that demonstrate our unwavering commitment to our alliance and partnership.”
Both Washington and its rival Beijing are vying for strategic and military influence in Southeast Asia, including the South China Sea, where the Philippines and China embroiled in a territorial dispute. Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam and Taiwan also claim parts of the sea, but Beijing claims up to 90% of the waterway.
During a state visit to Beijing earlier this month, President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. allegations of Chinese harassment of Philippine fishermen in waters clearly under his country’s jurisdiction. China agreed to one hotline to prevent an escalation of tensions in the potentially mineral-rich marine area.
Marcos: ‘A friend to everyone’
On Wednesday, Marcos told participants at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, that while China had emerged as its main trading partner, it had no intention of taking sides.
“[S]since the pandemic, the alliances between our neighbors have become very strong. For example, the largest foreign direct investment contributor is now Singapore in the Philippines,” Marcos said, according to transcripts made available to reporters in Manila.
“The Philippines really is everyone’s friend. We don’t necessarily lean west or east, that we’re very, very balanced in where we are. I think that’s the right strategy,” he said.
In a joint statement following the Manila dialogue, the Philippines and US officials agreed to pursue cooperation for a stronger partnership and alliance and to promote a “maritime order based on international law.”
“Reiterating the importance of maintaining and promoting a maritime order based on international law in the South China Sea, in accordance with UNCLOS and the decision of the 2016 Arbitral Tribunal, and recognizing the value of an integrated and comprehensive approach to the addressing maritime issues,” the Allies said. said.
UNCLOS refers to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. The US has not ratified the law, but recognizes UNCLOS as a codification of customary international law.
“The Philippines welcomed the United States’ offer to hold regular consultations to determine what joint maritime activities the two countries could undertake,” the statement said.
In 2016, Manila won its suit against China in an international arbitration court, resulting in a ruling that invalidated Beijing’s sweeping claims in the South China Sea. Beijing has since ignored the ruling.
Friday’s announcement came on the same day Jose Manuel Romualdez, the Philippine ambassador to Washington, confirmed that the two nations intend to resume two-plus-two talks with defense and foreign affairs officials. Responding to a request from BenarNews, the embassy said the countries are determined to resume talks this year.
In November, Vice President of the US Camala Harris visited Palawan, a southwestern Philippine island on the front lines of Manila’s territorial dispute with Beijing in the South China Sea.
She said the US was bound by the decades-old Mutual Defense Treaty to come to the aid of Manila should it be attacked.
On Friday, Kritenbrink repeated Harris’s statement.
“I don’t think we need additional new agreements to fulfill our commitment to the Republic of the Philippines under the Mutual Defense Treaty. And again, those commitments apply to the Philippine forces in the South China Sea,” he told reporters.
Jojo Riñoza in Dagupan, Philippines, and Jeoffrey Maitem in Davao, Philippines, contributed to this report.