Over the past week, Chinese navy ships were in the Philippines for what was characterized as a goodwill visit. While the scheduled interaction was just one of several developments within the broader bilateral relationship, it nonetheless put the focus on some of the ongoing activity in the defense domain of Sino-Philippine relations that have taken off under President Rodrigo Duterte.
As I have been noting in these pages, as part of Duterte’s pursuit of closer ties with China within his wider so-called independent foreign policy, Beijing and Manila have been exploring greater opportunities for defense cooperation in spite of lingering structural challenges and continued policy differences across a number of issues including the South China Sea disputes (See: “Beware the Illusion of China-Philippines South China Sea Breakthroughs”).
One manifestation of this has been navy-to navy interactions between the two sides. A case in point was the first visit of Chinese navy ships to the Philippines under Duterte, which took place in April 2017 at Sasa Wharf in Davao City. At the time, the visit of the vessels to Duterte’s hometown in the midst of the Philippines’ chairmanship of ASEAN was seen as a landmark development for bilateral ties.
Over the past week, a Chinese flotilla was in Manila for a scheduled four-day goodwill visit. The interaction constituted the second publicized official visit of Chinese naval ships to the Philippines under the Duterte administration, and the first defense-related interaction between the two sides in this realm in 2019.
The goodwill visit of the Chinese naval task force – which included two guided-missile frigates, the Wu Hu and Han Dan and the replenishment ship Dong Ping Hu – lasted from January 17 until January 21. According to Philippine officials, the visit consisted of traditional components including a welcome ceremony, a port briefing, and meetings and interactions between the personnel of both sides.
During their remarks at the welcome ceremony, both sides cast the visit as part an effort to build trust and cooperation within wider navy-to-navy ties as part of the wider comprehensive strategic collaboration occurring between the two countries under Duterte. Media accounts also emphasized some of the people-to-people aspects of the interaction as well.
Unsurprisingly, no additional details were publicly disclosed about the specific contents of the private discussions between the two countries. For that, we will have to wait for some of the other official-level consultations that are set to take place through the rest of 2019.