By ALFRED GABOT, Editor in Chief
MANILA/WASHINGTON – Amid a warning by Chinese Premier Li Qiang at the just concluded Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit in Indonesia on the need to avoid a “new Cold War,” the Philippines kept up its “word war” with China over its what it calls as “irresponsible” and “dangerous” maneuvers in South China Sea and intrusion into the West Philippine Sea and the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone.
This as United States and Philippine officials inspected new bases for the EDCA (Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement) in Cagayan and Pampanga as they ramp up plans to bolster defense and security plans as well as humanitarian mission in the wake of the heating tensions in the Indo-Pacific region triggered by China’s new 10-dash-line expansive map which now claims parts of Russia and India.
In a related development, the United States and Vietnam warned against the “threat or use of force” in the disputed South China Sea, days after the latest clash involving Chinese vessels.
President Joe Biden and Vietnam’s Communist Party chief Nguyen Phu Trong said the competing claims on the strategic waterway must be settled under international norms.
“The leaders underscored their unwavering support for the peaceful resolution of disputes in accordance with international law, without the threat or use of force,” Biden and Trong said in a joint statement.
They also called for “freedom of navigation and overflight and unimpeded lawful commerce in the South China Sea”.
On September 11, Defense Secretary Gilberto Teodoro Jr. called out the China Coast Guard for its “irresponsible behavior” after its ships and those of its militia performed dangerous maneuvers to stop latest resupply efforts to the Philippine detachment manning the BRP Sierra Madre in Ayungin Shoal last week.
The Philippine government had protested in the past the presence of Chinese vessels near other Philippine features in the West Philippine Sea, including the Scarborough Shoal and Julian Felipe Reef — all of them are within the 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ) of the country.
The Philippines task force for the South China Sea, an inter-agency government body, said in a statement the supply boats had reported “harassment, dangerous manoeuvres, and aggressive conduct” of Chinese vessels as they carried out a “legitimate” operation.
Teodoro maintained that the resupply efforts to the BRP Sierra Madre and its detachment will continue.
“And of course the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) vessels were once again dangerously harassed, this is to me irresponsible behavior on the part of the Chinese Coast Guard (CCG) and I think that the world knows who is in the right here, so it doesn’t need much more saying, or talking about, the world has reacted before to the water cannoning,” he said after the christening and commissioning of the two more ships of the Philippine Navy’s Alvarez-class patrol vessels which were supplied by the US Navy.
Teodoro said that while no water cannoning took place during the latest resupply mission, the Chinese vessels’ dangerous maneuvers against the PCG vessels escorting the two resupply boats are an “egregious violation (of) maritime safety”.
“Hindi ako kapitan ng barko pero kita mo naman ang panggitgit nila at kung may mangyari sino ang sasagot? Ano ang mangyayari? (I am not a ship’s captain but you can see how closely they tried to corner and tail our ships, and should something happen, what will happen then?),” the Defense chief noted.
Despite this, Teodoro said the Philippines will continue to escort supply boats involved in the “RORE” (rotation and resupply) mission .
Asked on whether it is about time to let PN ships escort the RORE missions, Teodoro said he is more inclined to wait first for the recommendation of the PN chief, the Armed Forces of the Philippines chief of staff, and National Security Council.
Several senators, meanwhile, reiterated their call to beef up the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG), more so after the series of harassment experienced by the Philippines during its recent trips to the West Philippine Sea.
Sen. Robin Padilla said the PCG must be given a bigger budget in 2024 so it would not be “forced to depend” on US assistance.
The Philippine Coast Guard (PCG), meanwhile, said the latest Philippine mission to Ayungin Shoal confirmed the active participation of “Chinese maritime militia (CMM) vessels” disguised as fishing vessels in blocking resupply ships en route to the BRP Sierra Madre.
PCG spokesperson for the West Philippine Sea Commodore Jay Tarriela said the ships’ participation were notably “covert” in previous operations.
“But for this particular resupply mission, it has been very clear that the Chinese maritime militia are performing active role to block the resupply mission,” he said.
National Security Council Deputy Director Jonathan Malaya, meanwhile, said it is critical for Manila to strengthen partnership with like-minded countries and show China that “we have this network of alliances that support our position in the West Philippine Sea”.
Malaya labeled the acts as China’s gray zone tactics, a term often used by security experts to describe activities that are below the threshold of what constitutes aggression to prevent the country from using self-defense.
“We are the rightful possessor already of the West Philippine Sea. Iyan ay atin (that is ours) because it is within our exclusive economic zone,” he said.
“We may not have sovereignty over it but we have the right to exploit the natural resources. We allow freedom of navigation according to international law ngunit ang puwede lang makinabang sa EEZ ay ang Pilipinas (but the only one allowed to benefit from that EEZ is the Philippines),” he added.
Many countries, including Australia, Japan and United Kingdom, have also expressed support for the “final and binding” 2016 ruling on South China Sea (SCS) that favors the Philippines and invalidates China’s sweeping claims over the hotly contested waters. (email@example.com)