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2 Asian Allies Reweigh Their China Ties as Territorial Disputes Grow

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte (L) speaks with South Korean President Moon Jae-in during a joint press conference after their meeting at the presidential Blue House in Seoul, South Korea, June 4, 2018.
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte (L) speaks with South Korean President Moon Jae-in during a joint press conference after their meeting at the presidential Blue House in Seoul, South Korea, June 4, 2018.

A summit this week between leaders of Pacific Rim allies South Korea and the Philippines is expected to show that both lean toward the West rather than China despite their efforts to get along with Asia’s superpower, analysts say.

A swing toward the West by either country would put Beijing further on the back foot in Asia, where its military expansion alarms multiple governments, and give the United States a new opening to get involved in the region, scholars believe.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte said on his office’s website November 20 he will meet his Korean counterpart at an Association of Southeast Asian Nations-South Korea summit in Busan Monday through Wednesday. Asian security issues will lead discussion, it said.

“The Philippines and Korea both have been fairly accommodating of China, because Korea given its proximity and Duterte because he wanted to make the best deals,” said Jeffrey Kingston, history instructor at Temple University's Japan campus.

Now, he said, “both of them are countries that feel concerned about the rise of China. Both feel threatened.”

Ties with China

Duterte broke ice with China in 2016 by setting aside a maritime sovereignty dispute and accepting pledges of $24 billion in Chinese aid, key to his country’s infrastructure renewal effort. But Chinese activity in the disputed South China Sea including a boat collision earlier this year is worrying Filipinos again.

South Korea spars with China over ties with North Korea. The north, a Chinese ally, periodically tests missiles near the south, and in 2017 Beijing condemned the south for installing an advanced antimissile system. Chinese officials feared the U.S.-backed system could monitor activity in China.

China and South Korea separately dispute sovereignty over a tiny island, and South Korea’s coast guard has fired on Chinese fishing boats. However, the two sides, separated by just a few hundred kilometers, agreed last month to improve relations and pursue denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.

“Although Korea has its own problems with China, especially with fishing and some islands, they’re handling it very, very differently from us,” Jay Batongbacal, international maritime affairs professor at University of the Philippines.

US alliances

The two leaders are expected to talk about China this week.

“The equilibrium of geopolitics will be high on the agenda including issues such as the tension in the Korean Peninsula and the Spratly Islands,” Manila's presidential website quotes Duterte saying. Beijing and Manila dispute sovereignty over the Spratlys, an archipelago in the South China Sea.

South Korea and the Philippines, though both historic U.S. military allies in Asia, lack the clout on their own to take any action, said Fabrizio Bozzato, Taiwan Strategy Research Association fellow who specializes in Asia and the Pacific. They might instead jointly support a broader alliance, he said.

“I believe that they can be part of a regional U.S.-centric and Japan-centric regional architecture to resist China, but they cannot be the initiator of that,” Bozzato said. “What they have in common really is that they are both allies to the United States and that they are facing China’s pressure."

A top U.S. defense official pledged in June more military cooperation in Asia -- and criticized China’s military expansion. Washington regularly sends naval ships to the region as warnings to China.

Last month the Philippines joined U.S. and Japanese forces for annual military exercises that news reports from Manila said were designed to keep Asia "free and open,” wording that Washington uses to ask that China quit expanding. Duterte had resisted U.S. help in 2016 and 2017.

South Korea answered U.S. lobbying this month by saying it would stay in an intelligence-sharing pact with Japan despite a trade spat with the Japanese government.

South Korea still looks to China and the United States for help on North Korea issues, said Steven Kim, visiting research fellow at the Jeju Peace Institute.

“It will have to carefully calibrate its relations between the two great powers while occasionally hewing closer to one over the other depending on which of its interests are on the line or at stake,” he said.

Korean aid to the Philippines

Since 2017, South Korea has already emerged as a benefactor to the Philippines and their leaders are due to sign four economy-related deals at the summit.

Two years ago it offered $1.7 billion in credit and other financial aid to help the Philippines improve transportation and energy. Analysts told VOA Seoul hoped to offset Chinese influence in the developing Southeast Asian country.

South Korean companies also build ships for the Philippines as Manila seeks to upgrade its navy. Korean shipbuilder Hyundai Heavy Industries started work this month on a Philippine frigate, news website reported. Another frigate is due for delivery in May.

“The Philippines is getting a lot of its modernization requirements like ships from Korea,” Batongbacal said.