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TAIPEI — Annual exercises held by the Philippine and U.S. navies are skipping the South China Sea this year as the Southeast Asian nation’s leader takes another step toward a stronger political and economic relationship with China, the sea’s most ambitious claimant.
The “Balikatan” military exercises May 8-19 include a disaster drill off Aurora province on the Pacific Ocean side of the main Philippine island, Luzon. They have kept clear of disputed tracts in the South China Sea. Beijing’s maritime claims overlap Manila’s in the South China Sea off the west Luzon coast.
Avoidance of the disputed sea advances Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s friendship with China after four years of open disagreement that had landed in a world arbitration court.
“President Duterte has never been a true geopolitical person, which means that foreign policy is about economic policy, and you can see this in the way he actually justifies or explains the approach to China,” said Herman Kraft, a political scientist at University of the Philippines Diliman.
Duterte has visited China twice, met with Chinese President Xi Jinping and agreed to hold talks – going on this month – over management of contested tracts of water. China offered $24 billion in aid and investment in October and in January committed to 30 projects worth $3.7 billion.
The exercises off the Philippine’s Pacific coast signal support for China while giving a new nod to the United States as well as pro-American elements of the public, analysts say.
Benham Rise, a 13-million-hectare undersea plateau believed to be rich in fossil fuels, was awarded to Manila in 2012 by the U.N. Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf. But Chinese vessels were spotted exploring it last year. China does not officially claim the plateau.
A show of force backed by the U.S. navy, part of the world’s strongest military, near Benham Rise should help calm Filipinos upset by China’s presence last year and those who simply prefer Washington to Beijing, analysts say.
“It ensures the pro-American Filipinos the Americans are not totally out of the Philippines and there’s still room for dialogue and cooperation, and so these exercises are just a calibration of Philippines-U.S. relations,” said Eduardo Araral, an associate professor at the National University of Singapore’s public policy school. “So China is happy, Philippines is happy, U.S. is happy.”
About 70 percent of Filipinos place “much trust” in the United States, according to a late 2016 poll by the Metro Manila research institution Social Weather Stations.
The United States colonized the Philippines for about 50 years through World War II and has given it military support since then.
Duterte angrily questioned American influence in the Philippines last year and ordered that its forces leave — but later backed down on most of his threats. He knew about Chinese research vessels at Benham Rise last year, but didn’t reveal that knowledge according to some Philippine media reports.
China resents U.S. involvement in the South China Sea, a 3.5 million-square-kilometer tract rich in fish, shipping lanes and possible fuel reserves.
“The naval drill serves also the purpose of signaling that Manila is intentioned to make the Philippine defense posture less unbalanced,” said Fabrizio Bozzato, an associate researcher specializing in international affairs at Tamkang University in Taiwan.
“So far the Philippine defense strategy, attention and resources have been focused on the western corridor of the Philippines, so President Duterte intends to show the domestic and international audience that he’s determined to improve the security infrastructure in the eastern part of the country,” Bozzato said.
In 2014, former Philippine president Benigno Aquino signed an enhanced defense agreement with Washington. Joint naval exercises since that year had targeted possible scenarios aimed at resisting China in the disputed sea.
The world arbitration court said in July China lacks a legal basis to most of its claim, which covers about 95 percent of the whole sea extending south from Hong Kong to Malaysian Borneo. China has irritated the Philippines and three other Southeast Asian claimants to the same sea with a push since 2010 to landfill tiny islets for military use.
Philippine and U.S. officials agreed in November to the scope of this year’s joint exercises, which the U.S. Embassy in Manila says include “maritime interdiction and amphibious raids” as well as humanitarian aid and anti-terrorism work. The United States sent a navy logistics vessel, amphibious vehicles and more than 25 military aircraft, the embassy says.
The embassy did not comment on reasons for this year’s choice of the Philippine Pacific Coast as a location for the exercises.