MANILA — The Philippines may benefit if there is a renewed emphasis on Asia by the administration of U.S. President Joe Biden, which could help act as a counterbalance to China in the region, the country’s defense minister said on Friday.
The former U.S. colony has long been a treaty ally of Washington, but its ties have warmed with China and Russia since President Rodrigo Duterte took office in 2016 amid Beijing’s promises of billions if dollars of aid, loans and investments.
“Being one of America’s allies in the Indo-Asia Pacific region, the Philippines may benefit from the Biden administration’s anticipated pivot to Asia strategy,” Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana told foreign journalists in a pre-recorded speech.
The Philippines welcomed the prospect of a new era of relations with the United States, he said, adding that the longstanding geopolitical rivalry between Washington and Beijing would continue to test his nation’s adeptness in balancing relations.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Wednesday that Washington stood with Southeast Asian nations resisting pressure from China, which claims 90% of the strategically important South China Sea.
China does not recognize a 2016 international arbitration decision invalidating its claims in the waterway, where there are overlapping claims with the Philippines, Brunei, Vietnam, Malaysia and Taiwan.
After years of reclaiming land and building military strongholds in the South China Sea, China has passed a law allowing its coast guard to fire on foreign vessels, if necessary, to protect its claims. The Philippines has lodged a diplomatic protest against the legislation.
The move adds to tensions in the waterway after the United States sent a carrier group through area to promote “freedom of the seas” last week, unnerving China.
“I’m afraid that we have to now be more circumspect in the way we handle our relationship with both countries. We don’t want to be caught in the middle,” Jose Manuel Romualdez, the Philippine ambassador to Washington, said in the same forum. —Reporting by Neil Jerome Morales Editing by Ed Davies