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POLITICAL decision-makers, legislators, defense analysts and opinion writers are in disagreement over how the Philippines should react to past actions and recent spate of Chinese aggressions and provocative moves in the West Philippine Sea (WPS). In the wake of the use of a military-grade laser against a Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) vessel and crew, Officer in Charge of the Department of National Defense Carlito Galvez Jr. and visiting US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin agreed to resume joint naval patrols that were stopped by then-President Rodrigo Duterte. Australian Deputy Prime Minister and Defense Minister Richard Marles also expressed the willingness of his country to participate in joint naval patrols along with Japan. We understand the position of those opposed to the idea of joint maritime patrols, believing that they will draw repercussions from China. But the Philippines has long been at the receiving end of China's rogue behavior even with Duterte's cordial relations with President Xi Jinping. And for a weak nation like ours, it is incumbent on President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. to solicit support from other powerful and like-minded nations that advocate the rule of law.

China is a powerful neighbor espousing that might is right. Having ratified the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, it violates international law as the foundation of the Unclos by ignoring the provision for maritime entitlements of the Philippines to its 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ) and 150 nautical miles further of extended continental shelf (ECS) granted to coastal states like ours. And where the Philippines, through an arbitral award, has secured a favorable ruling declaring illegal the expansive claims of China to the Philippine EEZ, President Marcos must capitalize on it, instead of setting aside this legal victory.

China continues to deprive us of our maritime entitlements and in fact prevents us, through force and intimidation, from exploring and developing our own EEZ. It uses bullying and scare tactics to force the Philippines into joint exploration and surrender our "sovereign rights and jurisdiction" over our marine resources in the process. This, declared retired Supreme Court Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio, is fundamentally impermissible because the 1987 Constitution demands, "The State shall protect the nation's marine wealth in its archipelagic waters, territorial sea and exclusive economic zone, and reserve its use and enjoyment exclusively to Filipino citizens." An underhanded deal that former Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. had to refuse in favor of Philippine sovereignty. It is high time that the President considers the possibilities of exploring the country's marine resources with other partners or resume negotiations with China within the bounds of the Constitution.

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Under the circumstances at present, the Marcos administration is soliciting needed support from the global community as a forum where the Philippines is at parity with China. There is now a crescendo of voices reporting Chinese atrocities and provocative acts where such used to be downplayed. Recorded videos of such aggressive behavior are now available in all platforms including social media provided by the Philippine Navy (PN) and the Philippine Air Force and, lately the PCG. Talking heads from different agencies of government such as the DFA, Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) and again lately PCG are now seen and heard condemning Chinese bullying and abusive ways.

Unlike before when the country's political leadership's projects amiable relations with China, photos of vessels swarming the country's EEZ are now reported with such frequency and transparency. There is now more than the regular presence of PCG vessels and aircraft in our EEZ doing sovereignty patrols or in more subtle terms, maritime domain awareness patrols. And the AFP is no longer in an uncomfortable position of dodging reports of Chinese maritime militia's presence in our EEZ.

Last February 14, in what the diplomatic community deems as the ultimate display of protest, President Marcos summoned Chinese Ambassador to the Philippines Huang Xilian to express his "serious concern over the increasing frequency and intensity" of China's provocative actions.

Changing mindset

The current administration must work to alter the Filipino public's mindset that by boosting the country's military capability, we are preparing for war. To remain independent and to be accorded the respect a nation deserves from another and to maintain territorial integrity, any self-respecting sovereign nation like ours needs a credible national defense to deter intruders. It does not contravene state policies where we declare, "The Philippines renounces war as an instrument of national policy x x x adheres to the policy of peace x x x cooperation and amity among nations." Contemporary realities show that national defense is not less important than health or education as leftists and their supporters purport it to be.

In a speech that Justice Carpio delivered before the Philippine Bar Association, he lamented the fact that we as a nation "neglected to maintain a credible self-defense force, particularly in our naval assets despite our being an archipelagic country with extensive coastlines and a vast EEZ." The country is indeed "paying dearly for that neglect by losing Mischief Reef, Scarborough Shoal and most likely Ayungin Shoal in the near future," he warned.

With the circumstances obtaining in the western, northwestern and northern frontiers, the President urges the AFP to focus on the West Philippine Sea. When he said the AFP mission has changed, he meant that the most potent enemy that the military is now confronting is no longer the New People's Army, hence the change in focus. He is right in ushering the AFP to shift from internal security operations (ISO) mindset to territorial defense operations (TDO). From unconventional and asymmetrical to conventional mindset warfare outlook. And while this will entail a major paradigm shift, the demand of the times necessitates that the Defense department lay the cornerstones for the move.

AFP modernization

The Philippine military has long suffered from many years of neglect, of relying on foreign military aid and hand-me-down policy of previous administrations. Ironically, it was during the Duterte administration that the AFP took off in its modernization — allocating more modernization fund than the Estrada and Aquino presidencies combined.

To have an AFP that is ready for territorial defense and conventional warfare, President Marcos should appropriate more funds for AFP modernization by allocating more to the defense budget to finance the procurement of more floating assets for the PN and aircraft for the PAF. The country should embark on a multiyear capability upgrade of the current inventory of ships and aircraft that take years to build.

The Chief Executive can cause the allocation of additional budget aside from what has been earmarked as modernization fund.

Patriotic legislators — especially military reservists in both Houses of Congress — can yield portions of their "pork barrels" to a mass of fund that can sustain the AFP's capability upgrade. Our Navy needs more of those 78-footer boats that are smaller, faster, more agile and can be fitted with missile systems to ensure credible naval presence in our EEZ. The Naval Sea Systems Command (NSSC) has engineers and shipbuilders trained abroad who can build these platforms in our shipyards in Fort San Felipe in Cavite City.

Congress should amend Section 4(b) of Republic Act 7898 that provides, among others, "That no major equipment and weapons system shall be purchased if the same are not being used by the armed forces in the country of origin or used by the armed forces of at least two countries." It prevents the Philippine Navy, Philippine Army or the Philippine Air Force from benefiting from local expertise and experience.

The Philippine Navy can source its much-needed fleet from world-renowned local shipbuilders.

Finally, the President must exert his massive political influence to increase the defense budget. Substantial funds are needed to develop the decrepit conditions of AFP shelters in already existing naval stations and detachments on the nine islands, islets and features in the WPS. More than that, he must stand his ground in executing repairs and upgrades because such is not violative of any conventions or declarations — not even the 2002 Code of Conduct of claimant countries in the South China Sea.

The situation in the WPS took years to develop to what it is today, where military might is wanting, and it will surely take years of firm resolve and sustained campaign to get the international support that our country needs. We owe it to the next generation of Filipinos to preserve the county, keep it intact and sovereign.