The Philippines on Thursday said it is in the process of "crafting guidelines" on maritime activities, including joint patrols with allies, in the West Philippine Sea amid China's increasingly aggressive actions in the region.
Philippine defense officials earlier said they are in talks with the United States and Australia about future joint patrols in the South China Sea, where China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, and Taiwan have overlapping claims.
The Philippines has renamed parts of the South China Sea that are within its territory and exclusive economic zone as West Philippine Sea or WPS to stress its claim.
"GPH (Government of the Philippines) is in the process of crafting guidelines for the conduct of combined maritime activities in the WPS, including joint patrols," the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) said in a statement.
"Operational details, including on the possibility of engaging other regional partners, will be part of PH-US discussions within the framework of the MDB-SEB," it added, referring to the annual Mutual Defense Board-Security Engagement Board with the US.
No further details were provided by the DFA, such as the countries involved and location of the patrols.
The MDB-SEB mechanism discusses and draws up activities that will be undertaken by the two allies.
In a shift of policy likely to anger China, the Philippines' participation in the joint patrols in the South China Sea was opposed by former President Rodrigo Duterte, who cultivated close ties with Beijing in exchange for aid and investments.
In a recent visit to the Philippines, US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin III reiterated Washington's commitment to help defend the Philippines, a long-time treaty ally, against aggression after a Chinese coast guard vessel pointed a military-grade laser at a passing Philippine supply vessel near Ayungin Shoal on February 6.
The incident off Ayungin — also known by its international name Second Thomas Shoal — caused temporary blindness to some of the Filipino crew and prompted Manila to file a strongly worded diplomatic protest.
President Ferdinand "Bongbong" Marcos Jr. also summoned China's ambassador to personally convey his concern.
Australian Defense Minister Richard Marles, who also visited Manila last month, announced at a press conference that they are eyeing joint patrols with the Philippines in the disputed waters.
"We did talk today about the possibility of exploring joint patrols," Marles had said.
Apart from the US, only Australia has an existing defense pact with the Philippines that allows joint military exercises in the country.
The Philippine Constitution bans foreign bases, the permanent presence of foreign troops, and their engagement in local combat.
China, which considers the sea disputes a purely Asian issue, is opposed to any foreign intervention, particularly from the US. It also denied pointing a military-grade laser at a Philippine Coast Guard ship, although it accused the vessel of intrusion.
The US and China are at odds over the long-seething territorial row in the strategic waters, where Beijing has turned several former reefs into artificial islands with military facilities, runways, and surface-to-air missiles. —KBK/VBL, GMA Integrated News