Tokyo and Manila against Beijing's territorial claims

The two countries reiterated the same position during bilateral security talks. Chinese activities in the South China Sea and East China Sea were at the centre of the discussion. Xi Jinping warns Philippines, as the latter tried to find a balance between the US and China. During the election campaign, Robredo takes a tougher stance towards Beijing while Marcos Jr remains cautious.

Tokyo (AsiaNews) – Japan and the Philippines oppose “unlawful maritime claims, militarisation, coercive activities and the threat or use of force in the South China Sea,” reads a joint statement released after a meeting in Japan between officials from the two countries on security issues.

The target of the veiled attack was China and its military activities in the region. The Philippines – together with Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan and, to a lesser extent, Indonesia – oppose China’s territorial claims in the region.

Despite this opposition, Beijing has militarised some islands and coral reefs in the South China Sea. As a result, US warships regular patrol near these military outposts to contain China’s expansionism.

The two delegations, which included their respective foreign and defence ministers, also expressed “serious concern” over the situation in the East China Sea, where Japan and China are involved in another territorial dispute.

For years, Chinese Coast Guard ships have routinely sailed near the Senkaku (Diaoyu for the Chinese), islands located in a part of the sea administered by Tokyo but claimed by Beijing.

Japanese and Philippine officials agreed to work together for a “free and open” Indo-Pacific, a view similar to the official US position designed to counter China's geopolitical rise in the vast region.

Statements notwithstanding, Manila finds itself in a difficult position of seeking to balance between its alliance with Washington and its substantial economic dependence on Beijing.

During yesterday’s phone conversation, Chinese President Xi Jinping told his Philippine counterpart Rodrigo Duterte that regional stability cannot be achieved through military alliances, a clear reference to US policy in the Western Pacific.

Since his election in 2016, Duterte has built a privileged relationship with China. Unlike his predecessor, Benigno Aquino III, he has tried to reduce tensions with the Chinese, ignoring a ruling by the International Court of Arbitration in The Hague, which declared that Chinese claims to nearly 90 per cent of the South China Sea was “without legal basis”.

The bilateral meeting between Philippine and Japanese officials comes exactly a month before next month’s presidential elections in the Philippines.

The race now seems reduced to a duel between incumbent Vice President Leni Robredo and Ferdinand Marcos Jr, whose father ruled the Philippines as a dictator from 1965 to 1986.

Robredo announced a tougher stance towards China, whereas Marcos, who has been leading in the polls so far, said that he wants to remain on friendly terms with both Washington and Beijing.