11/08/2017, 13.50
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As Manila and Beijing start a new course in the South China Sea, Washington remains vigilant

Tensions between China and the Philippines over disputed islands are defused. The two countries had already agreed not to occupy new areas. ASEAN and China have agreed to a code of conduct in maritime disputes. Since Duterte came to power, relations between the US and the Philippines have deteriorated. China and Russia are courting the Philippines.

Manila (AsiaNews/Agencies) – Following protests by Beijing, Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte ordered the withdrawal of a structure on a disputed sandbank near an island Philippines occupies in the southern Chinese Sea.

Washington is following the evolution of diplomatic relations between the two countries as President Donald Trump's visits Asia, which  will determine the future of US influence in the region, according to analysts.

Filipino Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana told reporters on the side-lines of a forum on the upcoming ASEAN summit today that in August Filipino troops had built a hut on the sandbar, 4km off Thitu island, for use as a shelter for Filipino fishermen.

Soon after, Chinese patrol boats approached the sandbar and demanded that the hut be removed.

Mr Lorenzana said that President Duterte then instructed troops to remove the hut, after he was informed that the Philippines and China had already agreed not to occupy new land features in the South China Sea.

In August ASEAN and China had also agreed on a framework for a code of conduct to manage disputes in the South China Sea, an issue that is set to be discussed when ASEAN leaders meet in Manila next week.

The sandbar lies between Thitu, where the Philippines has a small community and a contingent of marines, and Subi reef, where China has built a sprawling island.

By exploiting some ambiguity in international law, Beijing claims a substantial portion of the sea (almost 85 per cent), including the Spratly and Paracel Islands, something contested by Vietnam, Taiwan, the Philippines, Brunei and Malaysia.

In order to ensure control of the main maritime routes in the sea, China is building a series of artificial islands with military installations and lighthouses.

As Washington monitors the situation, the US president is on one of the most sensitive Asian tours of recent years.

The crisis in the Korean peninsula and the economic consequences of the withdrawal of the US from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), one of Trump’s first official acts, are some of the issues at the centre of talks in Japan (5-7 November), South Korea (7-8 November), China (8-10 November), and Vietnam (10-11 November).

Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte and Trump will meet in Manila on the last leg of the latter’s trip to Asia (12-13 November).

Relations between the two countries have deteriorated under the Duterte government, especially after former US President Barack Obama criticised Duterte’s brutal war on drugs.

Duterte reacted by insulting Obama and announcing his country’s "separation" from the United States, its former colonial ruler and the Philippines’s historic ally.

Meanwhile, Russia and China have been courting the Philippines to move it away from the United States, something the latter is bound to counter.

For many analysts, the meeting between the two controversial leaders will be decisive.

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