Gov’t urged: Defend, assert territorial integrity in West Philippine Sea

West Philippine Sea
A Philippine Navy patrol aircraft spots Chinese fishing vessels in the West Philippine Sea last June 30. —PHILIPPINE COAST GUARD PHOTO

The Philippines should step up its joint patrols with other countries around Recto Bank and other reefs and shoals in the West Philippine Sea to forestall any attempt at occupation by the Chinese military, a political analyst said on Tuesday. 

On June 30, a Philippine military reconnaissance plane spotted dozens of Chinese vessels swarming a reef and a shoal south of Recto (Reed) Bank west of Palawan province, in what a Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) official said could be a prelude to an occupation. 

“I’m hoping that the swarming of this militia or even fishing vessels is just of a temporary nature,” Victor Andres “Dindo” Manhit, president of the think tank Stratbase Group, told in an online interview. “But if not, I think we have to assert our maritime rights and our territorial integrity by sending our own Coast Guard [ship], maybe initially, so it will not be seen as a military action.’’ 

Eventually, the Philippine military should deploy a Navy ship to the area and invoke “joint patrols’’ with its counterparts in allied countries as an added measure, he said.  

Elevating defense capacity

“Remember,” Manhit said, “we have started joint patrols with the United States, Japan and maybe even Australia moving forward. So that’s what we can do. The whole idea of joint patrols is to elevate our capacity to defend our maritime rights.’’ 

A broader alliance with other countries that believe in a rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific region “will make the Philippine position stronger,’’ he said.

The Philippine military’s Western Command had expressed alarm over the sighting of more than 50 Chinese maritime militia vessels “loitering’’ at Del Pilar (Iroquois) Reef and Escoda (Sabina) Shoal, calling it a “security threat’’ to the area.

According to PCG Commodore Jay Tarriela, the goal of swarming a particular maritime feature is to occupy it. 

Also on June 30, a Chinese coast guard vessel blocked a PCG ship, coming dangerously close to less than 100 meters to it, while the latter was en route to bring supplies to Marines stationed in the BRP Sierra Madre that serves as the Philippines’ outpost at the Ayungin (Second Thomas) Shoal. 

Related: Cat and mouse at Ayungin Shoal (or China’s ‘very aggressive’ presence in the West Philippine Sea)

Landmark arbitral ruling 

July 12 is the seventh anniversary of the Netherlands-based Permanent Court of Arbitration’s landmark ruling rejecting China’s claims to about 90% of the South China Sea. The Philippines lodged the case in 2013, during the administration of President Benigno Aquino III.  

China has ignored the 2016 arbitral ruling upholding the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone. The US-China Economic and Security Review Commission noted that since around 2009, China has employed its military, coast guard, and maritime militia to harass foreign ships and extract resources in the disputed waters, and starting in 2013, built artificial islands on which it based military and civilian assets.  

It did not help that during his term from 2016 to 2022, then President Rodrigo Duterte downplayed the ruling, calling it a worthless “scrap of paper,” and cozied up to China in exchange for promised billion-dollar investments that never materialized. 

Manhit said the Philippines should “internationalize’’ China’s increasing aggression in the West Philippine Sea in order to rally more countries to its side, and in support of the enforcement of the 2016 ruling. 

He said the government should match its diplomatic protests against China with “power’’—by modernizing its armed forces.  

“That’s why I said that side by side with joint patrols, it’s time for us really to announce stronger investments in the external defense of our country,’’ he said, adding: 

“But beyond that, we must really step up and focus our military modernization on the capacity of our Armed Forces to protect our territory through … the Navy and even the Air Force.’’  

Manhit said a Senate resolution seeking the United Nations’ intervention to prod China to accept the arbitral ruling “could be a natural next step.’’

“But I think we need to internationalize this issue more. China needs to be seen by the outside world beyond the Indo-Pacific region as one that is not acting like a good global citizen,’’ he said.

“The more it comes out in the media, both local and foreign, the more the world will see the actions of China… So we need to popularize this at the international level. If not, we might fail at the UN level,’’ he added. 

Last month, Sen. Risa Hontiveros filed a resolution urging the Philippine government to sponsor a UN General Assembly resolution calling on China to stop harassing Filipino vessels in the West Philippine Sea.  

The UN General Assembly should be able to tell China “to behave,’’ Hontiveros said.  

‘Go beyond’ Asean

Manhit also said the Philippines should “go beyond’’ the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) in its search for a solution to Chinese intrusions into Philippine waters.  

He observed that while Asean had been pushing for a code of conduct with China for more than two decades, the latter had been building islands in the area.  

“China has attempted to make South China Sea a China lake, where they start building those fake islands. We need to go beyond Asean,’’ he said. 

Besides, Manhit said, the Philippines should consider the situation of fellow Asean members Laos and Cambodia, which have relied on Chinese investments over the past several years.  

“Asean is limited in its capacity because of the economic realities of certain members like Laos and Cambodia,’’ he said. 

Formed in 1967, Asean is composed of the Philippines, Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. China’s claims in the sea overlap with those of the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia and Vietnam.

Manhit agreed that Chinese vessels’ blatant incursions into Philippine waters and harassment of Filipino vessels and fishermen were an offshoot of Duterte’s policy of appeasement toward China. 

“Some would even say we became subservient to China during the time of Duterte, and that weakened our position. Now, under the Marcos administration, we are forced to catch up,’’ he said.  

Manhit recalled that the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (Edca) between the Philippines and the United States was put on hold during the Duterte administration, and as a result, the Philippine Navy and Air Force were “prohibited’’ from using their assets to patrol the West Philippine Sea. 

Edca was signed in 2014, during Aquino III’s administration, to achieve a “minimum credible defense posture,’’ Manhit said.

“Imagine if Edca was fully implemented, and now I think it’s moving forward,’’ he said, referring to President Ferdinand Marcos Jr.’s decision to grant the US military wider access to Philippine bases under the agreement. “So we need to look at Edca as one of those steps.’’

But nothing could be better than a “broader alliance and partnership’’ with other countries that adhere to a “rules-based order” in the Indo-Pacific, he said.  

‘Time to execute’

Manhit said Mr. Marcos’ declaration in his first State of the Nation Address in July 2022 that the Philippines would not abandon “a square inch’’ of its territory was a strong statement matched by his engagements with heads of states in a flurry of overseas trips.  

These state visits will generate stronger partnership in terms of defense and security, Manhit said, but added that in the end, “all these things are talks.’’ 

“It’s time for actual actions. There will be good plans, good ideas, good statements. Time to execute because we are catching up for the failure of the past six years,’’ Manhit said.

He added: “President Marcos, good engagement. Now turn it into actual policy executions. Building a submarine capacity through the help of countries like France. Improving our capacity to provide air defense. I think Sweden and the United States are offering some of their aircraft. Working with South Korea, with Spain, with Italy to build ships. Imagine if we have those types of partnership.”

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