Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has come out to openly suggest that China send assets help in the fight against Islamic State-linked militants in not only its troubled southern region but also in other commercially critical trade lanes such as the Malacca Straits, wires and local media reported.
Local reports quoted him as saying at a military event that amid concern about the proliferation of extremism and piracy in the southern waters of the Philippines, he had requested China to patrol the areas in international waters leading to the Sulu Sea as well as the Malacca Straits.
“I also asked China if they can patrol the international waters without necessarily intruding into the territorial waters of the country. We would be glad if we have their presence,” Duterte said, adding that the Asian giant could send patrol vessels, not necessarily “grey” warships.
He did not say if China had responded.
These areas have been hit by kidnapping and piracy attacks on commercial vessels thought to be led by Islamic militant group Abu Sayyaf, which has forced shipowners to divert vessels on longer routes or give up trading there altogether, pushing up costs and transit times.
He reiterated however that this could be done without deploying naval assets, using just Chinese coast guard vessels, which could enter territorial waters without necessarily impinging on sovereign rights. The Philippines has an arbitration ruling in its favour against China on its rights to the Spratleys.
At least some of China’s coast guard vessels are lightly armed and have been known to act aggressively in their national interests, most recently against Vietnamese fishing vessels in disputed waters off their coast.
There appeared to be some immediate backpedalling from government with National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon clarifying that the Duterte’s comments were simply part of broader concerns on the continuing kidnapping activities in Mindanao.
“Terrorism is an international concern, that’s what he meant. If he may have mentioned one country, all countries are also concerned on terrorism,” Esperon said.
There is an existing trilateral maritime agreement between the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia on joint air patrols in the problem areas bordering their respective territories.