The development came as the Philippines’ envoy to China on Monday expressed concern over the rising risk of “miscalculation” and armed conflict in the South China Sea amid Beijing’s efforts to challenge US dominance in the disputed waters.
Several recent media and think tank reports have said Beijing appears to have expanded its communication links and other facilities on artificial islands in the area.
“This is a show of trying to create a balance between these two powers that would serve the Philippines’ own interests,” said Xu Liping, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.
Xu said the two countries could “start with cooperation on counterterrorism” before they expanded their military cooperation.
Military commentator and retired People’s Liberation Army colonel Yue Gang said the move would also help Duterte consolidate his control over the military.
“Ever since Duterte started improving relations with China, the military has always expressed an opposing view,” Yue said. “It seems that Duterte does not have very firm control over the military … working with China can strengthen his influence over personnel choices in the future.”
But Roilo Golez, a former Philippine congressman and National Security Adviser who oversaw the country’s counterterrorism and national security programme, was sceptical.
“The AFP [Armed Forces of the Philippines] doctrines and equipment are generally compatible with those of the US military, the US being our treaty ally since 1951,” he said. “That cannot be altered to adjust to the PLA.”
Golez also said the language barrier and the Chinese military’s lack of recent experience in real combat may be obstacles.
The Pentagon in June announced it was providing Philippine forces with security assistance and training in the areas of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance in the fight against terrorism in conflict-torn Marawi.
It said it had an additional 300 to 500 troops in the country to support regular training and activities, on top of the regular 50 to 100 special forces troops in the south of the country on rotational exercises.
Also in June, China donated thousands of guns worth some 50 million yuan (US$7.8 million) to help Manila in its battle against Islamist gunmen in the southern city.
Chinese ambassador to the Philippines Zhao Jianhua said at the time that “the Chinese side would like to explore the possibility of joint training, intelligence sharing and joint military exercises in the area of fighting terrorism”.
Speaking at Monday’s event, Duterte said the proposal did not mean Manila would cut ties with its traditional ally, the United States, which he has previously accused of interfering with the Philippines’ internal issues.
“Let us be very clear on this – we are on good terms with America. Special terms, military alliance – that’s why we cannot enter into another military alliance with any country because there’s only one,” Duterte said, referring to the Mutual Defence Treaty between Manila and Washington.
“The Philippines now is veering towards China. But we maintain good relations. We have this [Philippines-US] pact defence deal, we will honour it, I don’t know when. But if we go to war, everything wilts,” he said.