MANILA, Philippines – Philippine defense chief Delfin Lorenzana said on Wednesday, March 7, that a possible joint maritime exercise between Southeast Asian countries and China won’t be happening within 2018 since the region’s top defense officials have yet to iron out its possible details.
“There was a proposal and it’s unlikely that the exercises will happen this year because we will still be having a table top exercise. Last time we talked with the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) defense ministers last month, we were discussing if the table top should be in China and the real [exercises] be done here, [or vice versa],” said Lorenzana in a chance interview with reporters at the House of Representatives.
China, back in 2015, proposed a joint maritime exercise with the regional bloc. “That’s the proposal. We are still getting the consent of other ministers,” added Lorenzana.
While Lorenzana could not say if they would push through or not, he’s sure that a response to China will come. “We can’t just leave one country’s request unanswered,” he said.
Why does this matter? China and members of the ASEAN have an interesting relationship.
While some of its countries are closely allied with the Asian superpower, several others are at odds with it. The Philippines is among the many countries with disputes over areas in the South China Sea, which China is claiming as its own.
China and its disputes with the Philippines and other ASEAN countries has always been a prickly topic, particularly during regional meets. The regional bloc and China, however, agreed to begin talks on a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea during the ASEAN-China Summit held in Manila last November 2017.
The Philippines itself has been trying to forge closer deals with China, despite ongoing issues over the West Philippine Sea. President Rodrigo Duterte wants a foreign policy that shifts closer to countries like China and Russia, and farther from long-time ally the United States.
What’s next? Lorenzana said Singapore’s defense minister is speaking to counterparts from all over the region. There’s a lot to discuss – the mechanisms of the maritime exercises, for instance. Lorenzana says each country could forge bilateral deals with order to pave the way for the joint drills.
“It’s good [for the Philippines] because we can improve communication with each other, we can work on disaster relief and operations, use it for patrols against piracy, criminality, [and] terrorism,” he added.
They’ll also have to talk about where the drills will take place, exactly. “We don’t know yet,” said Lorenzana, asked if it could take place over contested waters.