For Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, Manila must "balance" its relationships with two rival superpowers in the South China Sea -- Washington and Beijing -- to ensure that it exercises its right to exploit natural resources in the contested waters.
President Rodrigo Duterte, Lorenzana said, should not be faulted for saying that the Philippines is "inutile" in the South China Sea. The President, who led a foreign policy shift to China from the US, is just being "realistic and practical," the defense chief said.
The Philippines is no match militarily to both China and the U.S. Beijing is asserting its claim in the area while the Washington is making sure that this does not impede freedom of navigation in one of the world's busiest shipping lanes, Lorenzana told ANC.
"That's the problem between the two superpowers. Nagtatapunan sila ng accusations (They are hurling accusations at each other). I don't think we should be involved in that kind of big power rivalry," he said. "Our interest is how to exercise our right to exploit the natural resources according to the rights given to US by UNCLOS."
The Philippines asserted its claim, and won against China, before a United Nations-backed arbitration court in 2016. The ruling was based on UNCLOS or the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which states how far out at sea countries can claim as their territory or exploit exclusively.
Regardless of the U.S.' moves, Lorenzana said the Philippines, by proximity, has to deal with China "whether we like it or not." He added: "They are a close neighbor. They're always there, hindi naman aalis 'yan eh (they're not leaving). So I think we have to manage our relationship with the Chinese.
Referring to U.S. statements against China's moves, Lorenzana said: “It’s easy to talk about that, but when push comes to shove, will they be backing us up? Will they be there when there will be shooting?” he said.
“We have to study further kung anong gustong mangyari ng US (what the US wants to happen),” he added.
There are diplomatic tracks to resolving the South China Sea disputes. On the ASEAN level, the Philippines is pushing for a binding Code of Conduct between China and ASEAN claimants. Bilaterally, Manila and China signed an agreement to start discussions on a potential oil and gas deal. Foreign Affairs Sec. Teddy Locsin Jr. called this an "agreement to agree."
In the run-up to the Philippines' arbitration win in 2016, China built massive structures over reefs and outcrops claimed by Manila. The U.S. said this could be used to establish an Air Defense Identification Zone in the area.
The Philippines occupies one of the largest islands in the Spratlys, Pag-Asa, where it keeps a community of several dozens. A landing facility for ships was recently inaugurated there.