SEN. Francis Escudero on Monday called on President Benigno Aquino 3rd to immediately convene the National Security Council (NSC) to once and for all chart a course of action on how to address China’s aggressive acts in the south Chian Sea (West Philippine Sea).
Escudero’s call came as the Armed Forces chief of staff, Gen. Gregorio Pio Catapang Jr. released what he said were recent satellite pictures of intense Chinese construction over seven reefs and shoals that are dangerously close to the Philippine mainland.
“It might indeed be best to convene the NSC in order to bring everybody in the loop given that this is an issue facing our country and people regardless of political affiliation,” the senator said in a statement. “We are well within our rights and claims. We should not give up our rights and, in fact, we should assert our sovereignty. This is why convening the NSC is fundamental to address this issue.
“All branches of the government must work together in unison. We bring the best minds, the soundest judgment and the best intentions for the country to stand at [their]best on an issue that is every Filipino’s claim,” he explained.
China claims sovereignty over most of the resource-rich and strategically important sea, including areas close to other Southeast Asian nations, using vague demarcation lines that first appeared on Chinese maps in the 1940s.
The Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei Darussalam and Taiwan have overlapping claims.
China expanded its presence in disputed parts of the sea in recent years by embarking on giant reclamation works on reefs and islets, turning some into islands capable of hosting military aircraft landing strips.
“We are really amazed [at]the phase that China is reclaiming the area. I hope it’s not fast but I hope it’s not furious. We are really in a very difficult situation because now they are reclaiming the Mischief Reef. So if they reclaim the Mischief Reef, we will be cut off,” Escudero said.
In a separate news briefing also n Monday, Catapang said, “We have compelling reasons to raise our voice to tell the whole world the adverse effects of China’s aggressiveness.”
He added that show of force was causing concern “not only because it would deter freedom of navigation, but also due to its possibility of military purposes.”
In an interview with Agence France-Presse last week, President Aquino said the world should fear China’s actions in the disputed sea, warning they could lead to military conflict.
Catapang said he is hoping that there will be no miscalculation or aggressiveness that will happen between Chinese and Filipino soldiers stationed in the area.
“There are soldiers there and this, if this happens they are very near each other so I hope there will be no miscalculation or aggressiveness on both sides so hopefully we will solve this,” he noted.
When asked what the military can do about this, Catapang said, “I think we just have to show the flag, we’ll have to do what we have to do.”
The massive reclamation activities, according to the AFP chief, are causing irreversible and widespread damage to the biodiversity and ecological balance in the West Philippine Sea.
He cited as an example the destruction of 300 acres of coral reef systems resulting from the reclamations and which is seen to lead to economic losses to coastal states valued at $100 million annually.
“We are saddened hearing the reports that China has driven away Filipino fishermen near these reclamation sites and also in Bajo de Masinloc [Scarborough Shoal] which denies our people of their own fishing areas, these are their sources of livelihood,” Catapang said.
If all the reclamation works, particularly of Mischief Reef are finished, he added, the Chinese may deploy ships in the area.
If this happened, Catapang said, the area would be “militarized” and would create further tensions.
“Our greatest problem now is the Mischief Reef because it is in line of our defense. You see here we have an arc of defense and if the Mischief Reef is reclaimed we will have a problem. If they reclaim it, they will threaten all our islands, including the Ayungin Shoal, so what we want now is to address this reclamation inside the EEZ (exclusive economic zone) which include Chigua Reef, also Johnson Reef and of course the Mischief Reef, so these are the three areas that are really… giving us much concern,” the military chief also noted.
The affected fishermen, Catapang said, may be escorted by the Philippine Coast Guard and the Department of Agriculture but not by the Philippine Navy because if the Chinese sees a gray ship, it might create a tension.
“We don’t want to unnecessarily provoke and send a battleship or a Navy ship to the area,” he added.
Subhed: Global concern
CHINA’S unrelenting reclamation activities are a global concern as Beijing’s prepositioning may imperil navigational safety along international trade routes, according to Foreign Affairs (DFA) Assistant Secretary Luis Cruz.
In a news briefing in Malacanang, Cruz, who leads preparations for President Aquino’s attendance in the 26th Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) Summit in Malaysia, said China’s activities already went past regional concern, especially among Asean countries, since the tension brought about by its “bullying” over the territory may affect 40 percent of global trade.
“This issue of reclamation should not only be the concern of Asean but the rest of the world because of the issue of safe passage. The President has already said that at least 40 percent of global trade pass through these waters, and if you look at the specific countries in the region, the percentage should even be higher, higher than 40 percent, especially countries in Northeast Asia. Aside from the Pacific, the only passage to the Middle East, to Europe, to Africa, to parts of Asia would be through the South China Sea,” the DFA official explained.
Cruz said the President will discuss the matter with his Asean counterparts more boldly during the retreat portion of the summit where the leaders are given an opportunity to express their views on regional security issues including the South China Sea. He said the discussions will not be a negotiation conference.
“So we will leave it to the chairman to say at the end of the summit on what transpired during the two-day meeting, especially what the leaders would have said in as far as the issue of the South China Sea is concerned… The President has already said this is not a bilateral issue, this is not a regional issue, but the world should really be concerned [about]this issue because of several things, not only the freedom or the safety of navigation, but also the damage that is being done to the marine environment in the area,” he added.
Cruz said the Philippine government is “pursuing this track of making people from other parts of the world aware of the seriousness of what is happening on the ground and on the seas because this will considerably alter the way of doing business globally.”
At the same time, the DFA official pointed out that the Declaration of Conduct that will pave the way for the formulation of a Code of Conduct to ease tensions is “not legally binding.”
“Let me say that the origin of the Code of the Conduct is what we have signed in 2002, which is the Declaration of Parties on the Code of Conduct. We all know that this legal instrument, by its very nature, which is a declaration, is not legally binding,” Cruz said.
The meetings that Asean are currently having with China, he added, are aimed at coming up with a “successor legal instrument that will be more binding.”
Cruz said they already had three meetings through the joint working group that will determine contents of the Code of Conduct.
The level of discussion of that joint working group, according to him, is to identify the elements that can easily be achieved or agreed upon, or what they call the “low-hanging fruits.” An example would be the opening of a hotline and conduct of activities on search and rescue operations.
Cruz disclosed that besides the filing of a “memorial” contesting China’s 9-dash line policy before the International Tribunal on the Laws of the Sea, they continue to explore other means to ease tensions.
“These sessions are not open to the media. But there are various ways of doing this, which I am not at liberty to discuss at this point in time. But let me say that we are pursuing other tracks with China. Of course, what is official is that we have submitted this issue before the international tribunal because we wanted a decision on our entitlements in the regime of waters under Unclos (United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea),” he said.
WITH JOEL M. SY EGCO AND AFP