BEIJING: Beijing has begun military drills in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea), state media reported Saturday ahead of a ruling by an international arbitration court on a dispute with the Philippines over the strategic waters.
The navy Friday carried out “combat exercises” with “live missiles” between the Paracels and the southern Chinese island of Hainan, the PLA Daily, the military’s official newspaper, said on its website.
State television CCTV broadcast images of fighter aircraft and ships firing missiles, helicopters taking off and submarines surfacing.
“The drill focused on air control operations, sea battles and anti-submarine warfare”, said the PLA Daily, whose article was reposted on the defense ministry website.
The military maneuvers come as the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague is set to make its final decision on Tuesday in the territorial dispute between the Philippines and China.
The PLA Daily however insisted they were “routine exercises” and unrelated to the court’s ruling.
China asserts sovereignty over almost all of the strategically vital waters in the face of rival claims from its Southeast Asian neighbors, most notably the Philippines and Vietnam.
To bolster its claims it has rapidly turned reefs into artificial islands capable of hosting military planes.
Manila lodged its suit against Beijing in 2013, challenging China’s claims to much of the strategic waterway and saying it was in violation of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), to which both countries are signatories.
Beijing has boycotted the proceedings, saying the court has no jurisdiction over the issue and that it will ignore the ruling.
University of the Philippines political science professor Roland Simbulan described the war exercises as China’s means of expressing its resolution not to abide by the upcoming resolution of the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, Netherlands on the sea dispute between the Philippines and China.
Simbulan however maintained that the Philippines should not close its doors on bilateral negotiations with China.
“We have tried multilateral. If we win this case I think that will just be leverage for us,” he said.
“I think China is open to talk to us and also I think they do not want our territory to be used against them because through EDCA (Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement], we are allowing US forces to actively use our territory against them and I think that is not a good thing because it could lead to war,” he added.
Former Philippine Ambassador Alberto Encomienda, meanwhile, noted that the Philippines and China should have a cordial relationship “for the simple reason that both sides cannot be without each other.”
In a rejoinder also on Saturday, Yasay reiterated that the government will wait for the July 12 ruling on the arbitration case and study its implications.
He explained that the bitter sea dispute could be resolved by negotiating with claimant countries and that any agreement could include sharing of the fruits of the sea.
Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam have also overlapping claims in the strategic waters.
“What I said is we have to wait for the ruling and study and dissect its implications.
As the ruling will not address sovereignty and delimitation, it is possible that some time in the future, claimant countries might consider entering into arrangements such as joint exploration and utilization of resources in disputed areas that do not prejudice the parties’ claims and delimitation of boundaries in accordance with Unclos,” Yasay said.
The military exercises were held days after Chinese Ambassador to Manila Zhao Jianhua vowed that China will not take any action in the disputed West Philippine Sea (WPS) that will undermine its friendship with the Philippines.
Yasay said the ambassador issued the statement during his recent courtesy call on President Rodrigo Duterte.
“We summarily spoke about the strengthening of our friendship. We have expressed the hope and commitment from both sides. Notwithstanding the arbitral tribunal or the case we have filed before it or the impending decision on July 12, our friendship will remain,” Yasay said in a recent forum in Makati City.
He also disclosed that Duterte and Zhao discussed the possibility of joint exploration and utilization of resources in the strategic waters.
The President, he said, is willing to negotiate with China on the matter.
In an earlier interview, the Chinese envoy said Beijing is hopeful that the bilateral negotiations with Manila will resume under the Duterte administration.
He said there should be no precondition to the talks as both countries are committed to friendship and cooperation.
“Let me emphasize this: We have been talking too much about the disputes in the last six years. Let’s focus on friendship and cooperation. That’s better,” said Zhao.
Talks of joint exploration of the WPS with China, however, did not sit well with a group advocating the enforcement of Philippine sovereignty over the disputed waters.
The group, Kalayaan Atin Ito [Freedom This Is Ours], on Saturday lashed out at Yasay for expressing willingness to share the resources of the disputed waters with Beijing.
In a Facebook post, the group recounted the bullying it suffered in the hands of the Chinese Navy when they sailed to and swam in the disputed territory in a bid to assert the Philippines’ sovereign rights over it.
“Mr. Yasay, you were not with us when we risked our lives and swam the waters of Scarborough Shoal and braved the propeller of the Chinese coast guard speed boats who chased and blocked us, just to show to China that Scarborough shoal belongs to the Philippines, and raised the Philippine flag there in June 12,” the group said.
With Michael Joe Delizo