The Balangiga Bells. File Photo from The Star/Krisjohn Rosales

In his speech marking the return of the Balangiga bells, United States defense secretary, Jim Mattis emphasized the need to deepen the “respect” between the two allies, the Philippines and the United States. Seen as either war booty or as relics of a bloody period, the return of the bells mark an end to a heavily disputed period between the allied countries. President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines has used the bells to needle the Americans, going even so far as asking for their return in his State of the Nation Address in 2017.

President Xi Jinping’s two-day state visit to Manila (November 20-21) was considered a milestone in Philippines-China relations. While depth still requires more work, the increasing breadth of the ties was demonstrated with 29 cooperation documents signed ranging from trade, investment and economic cooperation, infrastructure, agriculture, finance, information and communications technology, education, and culture. This provides much of the substance behind the elevation of the ties to a “Comprehensive Strategic Cooperation.” The visit reinforced continuity, downplaying of disputes and expansion of practical areas of cooperation. It also saw both countries’ attempt to remedy setbacks in some earlier agreed projects.

While Hanoi appreciated important achievements in the concerted efforts to manage the South China Sea issue, especially with the adoption of a draft negotiation text on the Code of Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea at the 51st ASEAN Ministerial Meeting, the situation in the disputed waters is still characterized by complexity, uncertainty, and unpredictability. Addressing Vietnam’s 30th Diplomatic Conference in August 2018, General Secretary of the Communist Party of Vietnam Nguyen Phu Trong noted that rapid and complex changes with potential unforeseeable risks in the South China Sea have posed new challenges to the country’s dual tasks of safeguarding national sovereignty, territorial integrity, and jurisdiction rights in line with international law, while preserving a peaceful and stable environment in the region.

The launching of Indomalphi Trilateral Maritime Patrol (TMP) in July 2017 was a celebrated milestone on security cooperation among the three neighbors Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines. Patterned from the Malacca Strait Patrol (MSP) such that it has also three components, the maritime patrol was followed shortly by introduction of air patrol and intelligence sharing. Since then, meetings and patrols have periodically convened, with each party rotationally taking turns in hosting the operations.

 File photo: Indonesian Defense Minister Ryamizard Ryacudu, Malaysian Defense Minister Hishammuddin Hussein, and Philippine Defense Minister Delfin Lorenzana at the launch of the three-state air patrol in Malaysia in October 2017 |

A sustained and institutionalized Trilateral Cooperative Arrangement (TCA) can become one of Southeast Asia’s security regimes.