MANILA – Amid China’s massive reclamation and dredging operations in the disputed West Philippine Sea (WPS), the Philippines’ foreign affairs department has said China is not an enemy.
”Your honor, China is not an enemy. In fact, we have bilateral and diplomatic relations with China,” DFA assistant secretary Benito Valeriano said when asked by Senator Antonio Trillanes IV if the government considers China as an enemy during the Senate inquiries on the WPS or South China Sea.
Valeriano said the Philippines has already filed eight diplomatic protests since April 2014, including the arbitration cases the DFA formally filed in May 2014 to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).
“Our approach to this is through the rule of law, that’s why we sought arbitration and even if China did not participate, it’s an option under UNCLOS for China not to participate and the tribunal that was composed for this arbitration has also engaged China to get this side of this arbitration,” Valeriano said
Valeriano said the protests does not include the three others filed against China for crashing the fishing vessels and hitting with water cannon the Filipino fishermen near the Ayungin Shoal.
Alarmed by the operations of China in the disputed territory, National Security Council (NSC) director general Cesar Garcia Jr. said the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) should focus from domestic to external security.
”It is very imperative to transition the armed forces from its domestic security focus towards an external or territorial defense role as rapidly as possible,” Garcia told the Senate panel.
Garcia said the territorial disputes in the WPS has overtaken all national security concerns including terrorism, insurgency and the peace and order problems in Mindanao.
”Judging from the recent developments, particularly the reports of massive reclamation projects in our exclusive economic zone, it is now very clear that our territorial disputes in the WPS has in fact overtaken all security issues,” Garcia said.
Garcia emphasized the need for the whole nation to get involve in investing in the country’s national defense by pursuing the AFP modernization program.
”It is also means we need to seriously re-think how we can swiftly capacitate the national police to take over the residual internal security responsibilities from the AFP,” the national security adviser said.
During the hearing, the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) said the China’s massive reclamation activities have already covered seven reefs in the disputed WPS, including three that are within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ).
Using a PowerPoint presentation, Western Command (Wescom) chief Vice Admiral Alexander Lopez showed photos of China’s massive reclamation activities in Mabini (Johnson), Calderon (Cuarteron), Gaven, Kagitingan (Fiery Cross), Chigua (McKennan/Hughes), Zamora (Subi) and Panganiban (Mischief) Reefs. Mabini, Chigua and Panganiban are within the country’s EEZ.
Lopez said in the Panganiban reef which is only 126 nautical miles away from the Philippines, China has expanded its reclaimed area from only 1,000 square meters to 7.3 hectares based on a photo taken April 12, 2015.
China has even built what Lopez believed as three-kilometer airstrip both in the Kagitigan and Zamora reefs.
Jay Batongbacal, director for Institute of Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea, University of the Philippines (UP), believed that the massive reclamation was China’s response to the Philippines’ move to file arbitration case to the United Nation Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) in May 2014.
”In my view your honor, this (reclamation) may have been a long term plan but at this early, it is accelerated by the arbitration,” Batongbacal said.
While waiting for the AFP modernization to be completed by 2028, Batongbacal suggested that the AFP should think of “rationalized procedures” to defend the country’s territory particularly the exclusive economic zone.
”You have to have immediate contingencies which could happen at any time. It’s good that they (AFP) recognize they have to do something,” Batongbacal said.
AFP chief General Gregorio Catapang said one percent or Php26 billion of their annual budget is being allotted for the AFP modernization program.
During the hearing, former senator Leticia Ramos-Shahani recommended to include the local government units (LGUs) in protecting their territory specially in Zambales where fishermen have been harassed by the Chinese vessels.
”The LGUs should be involved in the issues of WPS. We should asserts ourselves. We should go beyond diplomacy and beyond protocol,” Shahani said.
Senator Teofisto Guingona III agreed with Shahani, saying “let’s make a people to people issue.”
Senator Antonio Trillanes IV, chairman of the Senate panel, said it is clear that the country has to modernize its armed forces.
”Now on other front, how we approach it diplomatically. That’s a tricky part. At least we have raised awareness,” Trillanes, a former Navy officer, said.
Trillanes said it is clear that China has violated the Declaration of Conduct with its massive reclamation in the disputed territories.
Trillanes agreed with Garcia but the AFP has to make sure that international security threat is totally wiped out before shifting its focus to external security.
Trillanes, however, clarified the Philippines will not engage in an arm race with China.
”At least we will have minimum credible defense posture or at least minimum deterrent capability ,” the senator said.
The WPS or South China Sea is being claimed partly by the Philippines, China, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei.