Duterte, Lorenzana and Chinese defense chief tackle stronger PH-China defense cooperation

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte met with China's Defense Minister General Wei Fenghe on Friday, September 11, in the Malacañang Golf Clubhouse to strengthen defense cooperation between their two countries and discuss the South China Sea.

With Duterte during the meeting was Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana who held his own meeting with Wei earlier that day in Camp Aguinaldo in Quezon City. Wei was accompanied by Chinese Ambassador Huang Xilian to Malacañang.

Wei's visit comes nearly 3 weeks after Lorenzana slammed China for confiscating fishing equipment of Filipino fishermen near the Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal. The shoal, a rich fishing ground, belongs to the Philippines' exclusive economic zone but is occupied by China.

The Philippines lodged a diplomatic protest over the incident.

But Wei's September 11 visit highlighted China's assistance to the Philippines' defense establishment.

During the visit, he and Lorenzana signed implementing guidelines for China's grant of 130 million renminbi worth of equipment to the Armed Forces of the Philippines. This amount translates to over P920 million or $19 million worth of equipment, which, according to a DND press release, is mostly for humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.

It is formally called the "Protocol between the Department of National Defense of the Republic of the Philippines and the Ministry of National Defense of the People's Republic of China on China's Provision of Military Assistance Gratis to the Philippines."

Duterte welcomed the signing of the document and acknowledged China's support for the Philippines' defense modernization since 2017, according to a Malacañang press release.

Renewal of 2004 defense pact

Lorenzana and Wei also agreed to "continue working on revisiting the 2004 Philippines-China Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) on Defense Cooperation" to make it more "responsive to current situations," said the DND.

This relatively unknown 2004 agreement binds the Philippines and China as defense partners.

It was signed during the last China-friendly Philippine presidency – that of Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, a known ally of Duterte.

That is it being revisited during the Duterte administration is significant and consistent with the Chief Executive's thrust of strengthening ties with the Asian power, despite concerns from many sectors that China is not doing its part to honor international commitments on the South China Sea.

China has been putting up military bases in illegally-built islands inside the Philippines' exclusive economic zone, in violation of Philippine sovereignty and the  United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

A 2016 international court ruling struck down China's activities as illegal yet Beijing has refused to acknowledge this. Critics say Duterte has done nothing to use the Hague ruling to pressure China into respecting Philippine maritime rights.

South China Sea code, pandemic

Duterte, in his meeting with Wei, repeated his longstanding call for the completion of a South China Sea Code of Conduct, a protocol for Southeast Asian countries and China to follow in order to avoid conflicts in the critical sea lane.

Wei, meanwhile, said China is ready to advance negotiations on the Code.

Lorenzana and Wei "discussed the issues on the South China Sea (SCS), how to avoid misunderstanding, and to resolve differences amicably," according to the DND.

"Both agreed that peace and stability in the SCS should be maintained," the DND said in its press release.

Aside from maritime issues, Lorenzana and Wei exchanged "best practices" in managing the COVID-19 pandemic.

Last May, China's Defense Ministry donated 2 million renminbi ($293,000 or P14 million) worth of medical supplies and personal protective equipment to the DND.

Wei's Philippine visit is part of his tour of ASEAN countries, said Malacañang. – Rappler.com

Pia Ranada

Pia Ranada covers the Office of the President and Bangsamoro regional issues for Rappler. While helping out with desk duties, she also watches the environment sector and the local government of Quezon City. For tips or story suggestions, you can reach her at pia.ranada@rappler.com.

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