Thomas Daniel was quoted in Nikkei Asian Review.

  • Article by CLIFF VENZON and CK TAN,  12 September 2020

MANILA/SHANGHAI — The defense ministers of China and the Philippines met in Manila on Friday, vowing “to avoid misunderstanding” amid tensions in the disputed South China Sea.

After low-key visits to Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei this week, Chinese Defense Minister Gen. Wei Fenghe arrived in the Philippine capital without much fanfare and with limited public statements, in contrast to the recent East Asia Summit, where Beijing struck a more confrontational tone.

The meeting signaled an attempt by both sides to ease tensions. Wei offered Manila a 130 million yuan ($19 million) grant for the Philippine military in the form of equipment for humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, part of a regional charm offensive by China.

“Secretary [Delfin] Lorenzana and Minister Wei discussed the issues on the South China Sea, how to avoid misunderstanding and to resolve differences amicably,” the Philippine Department of National Defense said in a statement after the meeting. “Both agreed that peace and stability in the South China Sea should be maintained.”

Last month, the Philippine defense chief accused Beijing of “doing provocations by illegally occupying some features within” his country’s exclusive economic zone, saying that China’s maritime claim “doesn’t exist except in their imagination.”

The comments were made after the Chinese Foreign Ministry rebuffed Manila’s protest against China’s confiscation of Filipino fishermen’s equipment and continued challenges to Philippine aircraft patrolling disputed waters.

China claims nearly the entire South China Sea — including areas the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia and Vietnam claim as part of their respective territories. It has built artificial islands in disputed areas to bolster its claims, while the presence of Chinese vessels in the other claimant’s exclusive economic zones has raised alarms.

Maritime disputes were also on the agenda for Wei’s visits to Malaysia and Indonesia. Malaysia filed a note verbale last month to the United Nations rejecting China’s claims in the South China Sea.

Wang Yi, the Chinese foreign minister, attended the virtual East Asia foreign ministers meeting on Wednesday and said that the U.S. “is becoming the most dangerous factor hindering peace in the South China Sea.” A diplomat, however, told Nikkei that Wang’s participation at the virtual conference amounted to no more than a prerecorded video message.

Still, Beijing’s point was not lost. “It shows how keen China is in its attempt to mitigate its interest and seek common ground with key ASEAN member states,” said Thomas Daniel, senior analyst at Malaysian think tank ISIS.

In his visits to Kuala Lumpur, Jakarta and Bandar Seri Begawan, Wei’s message was that safeguarding the stability in the South China Sea is a shared responsibility of China and its neighbors.

Yet Beijing’s call for action may face resistance in the region, as many countries view China as a threat. Fearing backlash from Malaysia’s Muslim majority, the country downplayed Wei’s visit to Kuala Lumpur due to “safety concerns,” according to a Malaysian senior minister.

Another area of focus for China’s diplomatic efforts is how to de-escalate tensions with India. Wang and Indian counterpart S. Jaishankar met on the sidelines of a conference at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in Moscow on Thursday. The two “agreed that the current situation in the border areas is not in the interest of either side,” a joint statement issued after the meeting said, referring to a tense standoff between the two countries along their disputed Himalayan border.

“They agreed therefore that the border troops of both sides should continue their dialogue, quickly disengage, maintain proper distance and ease tensions,” the statement said.

The countries agreed on Friday to restore “peace and tranquility” along the border.

Additional reporting by Kiran Sharma in New Delhi

This article was first published iNikkei Asian Review on 21 September 2020

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