South China Sea Dispute Looms Over Philippine Elections

By TREFOR MOSS / March 12, 2016/ WSJ.COM

MANILA—China’s growing assertiveness in the South China Sea is putting Philippine presidential candidates in a tricky situation, as they struggle to balance tough talk on national sovereignty with a desire to improve ties and boost trade with their country’s powerful neighbor.

“The inauguration of a new Philippine president presents a possible opportunity for Beijing and Manila to mend their fraught relationship.”

Chinese aggression and military superiority “shouldn’t make us surrender,” Sen. Grace Poe told The Wall Street Journal. Ms. Poe, who is roughly tied with her three main rivalsin the race for the presidency according to the latest polling data, promised to invest heavily in the Philippine military, citing Singapore as her inspiration. “They only have four million people, but they are strong, they can defend themselves,” she said.

All the candidates for the May 9 elections want to increase trade with China and enlist the country’s help in improving the Philippines’ crumbling infrastructure; but they don’t want to look weak by giving any ground on territorial claims in the South China Sea. “A huge spike in anti-Chinese sentiment” among Filipino voters gives them little room to maneuver, said Richard Javad Heydarian, a security expert at De La Salle University in Manila.

Sino-Philippine relations hit rock bottom under outgoing President Benigno Aquino III, who is term-limited and steps down in June.

Mr. Aquino has pursued a strategy of building up the Philippine military, while deepening ties with the U.S. and regional allies, such as Japan and Vietnam. On Wednesday, he announced that Japan had agreed to lease military surveillance aircraft to the Philippines—the latest development in a burgeoning alliance Beijing regards with suspicion.

“If the Philippines’ action is meant to challenge China’s sovereignty and security interests, then China is firmly opposed to that,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said at a regular news briefing Thursday.

Mr. Aquino also brought the Philippines’ complaints over China’s territorial claims to a U.N. tribunal in The Hague in 2013 and has repeatedly likened China to Nazi Germany for its activities in the South China Sea. The tribunal is expected to rule whether China has been acting illegally within the next few months.

Beijing effectively stopped talking to Mr. Aquino as a result of his legal gambit, and pressed ahead with the construction of a chain of artificial island bases in disputed areas of the sea.

The inauguration of a new Philippine president presents a possible opportunity for Beijing and Manila to mend their fraught relationship. Read more…

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