China and the Philippines are in discussions about a joint oil exploration project in the South China Sea in a deal that would see deeper economic and likely security ties between the two Asian neighbors.
“I can tell you we are pursuing it aggressively because we need it,” Foreign Affairs Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano told local media last week.
China sent representatives to Manila for talks regarding the project this week as both nations look to move past contentious matters regarding sovereignty and other regional issues.
Beijing claims nearly all of the South China Sea as its rightful territorial waters, but its neighbors have staked claims of their own in waters recognized by international law as their own.
Also, Manila won a legal battle against Beijing in 2016 when the International Court in The Hague ruled in favor of Filipino territorial claims to nearby atolls. China rejected the ruling and has been building and fortifying islands throughout the region. [source]
Analysis: It seems as though the Philippine government either can’t decide who it should be allied with — Washington or Beijing — or, more probably, Manila is pursuing better relations with both as a practical matter — security and economic interests.
Is isn’t as though Manila has completely turned away from Washington, though during the final years of the Obama administration, that appeared to be the case when President Rodrigo Duterte told Obama once to “go to hell” and, in comments made before the Great Hall of the People in China, that America “had lost.”
That said, ties between the government of President Rodrigo Duterte and the United States have begun to improve under the Trump administration. It didn’t hurt that, last spring and summer, the U.S. military provided Duterte’s forces with vital military gear and assistance as the Philippine military battled to retake the city of Marawi from ISIS-linked militants — a provision of security assistance China could not match.
There is also this: Trump’s ‘tough guy’ persona is the same as that of Duterte, and while that can sometimes make for diplomatic fireworks, on other occasions such leaders share a common bond and become good friends.
Bottom line: This oil exploration deal is probably Duterte doing what his foreign minister said after the two leaders met in Danang, Vietnam, last year: “If you have two tough guys in a room, there is always fear that they will try to appear tougher than the other. But they understand the same language, they have the same goals. In this case, both just want a better life for their people.”