In a first, Philippines to send warship to China fleet review

People waving flags of the Philippines and China as the Chinese guided-missile frigate Wuhu prepares to dock in Manila on Jan 17, 2019.
People waving flags of the Philippines and China as the Chinese guided-missile frigate Wuhu prepares to dock in Manila on Jan 17, 2019.PHOTO: AFP

MANILA - For the first time, the Philippines is sending one of its warships to a fleet review hosted by China in April, in a marked shift in ties between the two former sea rivals.

A spokesman said on Wednesday (Jan 23) that the Philippine navy had yet to decide which ship and how large a contingent to send to the event that marks the 70th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese navy on April 23.

The fleet review is to be held in the coastal city of Qingdao, eastern Shandong province.

The Philippines' participation is meant to reciprocate last week's port call in Manila by two Chinese guided-missile frigates and their supply ship, according to Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana.

That was the second port call by Chinese warships to the Philippines since President Rodrigo Duterte took office in mid-2016.

"They came in friendship, and the least we can do is offer them our vaunted hospitality. We, too, shall be sending some of our ships to visit China within the year," Mr Lorenzana told reporters after touring the frigate Wuhu on Sunday.

Sending ships would be part of the "confidence-building activities" for both countries, he said.

The Philippine and Chinese navies have had skirmishes over control of parts of the South China Sea.

China seized control of Scarborough Shoal, a disputed atoll just 358km west of the main Philippine island of Luzon, in 2012 after a Philippine navy frigate intercepted eight Chinese fishing boats suspected of poaching coral and giant clams.

China's navy had also harassed supply runs to Second Thomas Shoal, where a contingent of Philippine marines guard a World War II transport ship which the navy beached in 1999.

 
 
 

But since he took office in 2016, Mr Duterte has pivoted away from the United States, the Philippines' long-time treaty ally, as he sought backing for his economic and political programmes from China.

He set aside a 2016 ruling by an international tribunal on a case filed by the Philippines that struck down China's claims to nearly the entire South China Sea.

China claims three-quarters of the South China Sea, a strategic route through which about US$3 trillion (S$4 trillion) worth of sea-borne goods passes every year.

It has transformed reefs into islands in the Spratlys, in the southern half of the South China Sea, and placed on them emplacements for missiles, runways, extensive storage facilities and a range of installations that can track satellites, foreign military activity and communications.

Mr Duterte travelled to China in October 2016 to meet his counterpart Xi Jinping. China then pledged US$24 billion in aid and investment to help fund his US$169 billion infrastructure building programme.

Both countries now aim to sign a deal for joint undersea gas and oil exploration.

There is, however, scant public support for Mr Duterte's pivot towards China.

Three of five Filipinos are still distrustful of China, according to an opinion survey this month.

Nearly nine in 10 believe "it is not right for the government to leave China alone with its infrastructure and military presence in the claimed territories", the Pulse Asia survey said.