By Michaela del Callar – The Philippines will not back down from its territorial claim in the West Philippine Sea amid increasing Chinese aggression, President Benigno S. Aquino III said on Monday as the country boosts its military arsenal to protect its sovereign waters.
During his 3rd State of the Nation Address, Aquino assured the country that ongoing efforts to modernize and strengthen the military would prevent the country from standing helpless against territorial intrusions by stronger rival claimants, like China, in its own territories in the West Philippine Sea, also known by its international name – the South China Sea.
Aquino said the country would continue to pursue and defend its territorial claims and called on Filipinos to unite behind the country’s position.
“There are those who say that we should let Bajo de Masinloc go; we should avoid the trouble,” the President said referring to a shoal off the northwestern Philippines that has recently been at the center of a tense three-month standoff between Manila and Beijing.
“But if someone entered your yard and told you he owned it, would you agree? Would it be right to give away that which is rightfully ours?” the President asked.
China had also laid claim over the Bajo de Masinloc or Scarborough Shoal, which falls within Manila’s 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone or EEZ.
Aquino’s statement depicts his administration’s firm resolve to confront the militarily more superior China despite the odds. Aquino has said it was his constitutional duty to protect the country’s territorial integrity and enforce its laws, including in areas China claims.
The West Philippine Sea- a strategic and resource-rich waterway where more than 50 percent of the world’s merchant fleet tonnage passes each year – had been a source of conflict among rival claimants China, Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan.
Overlapping claims to the contested waters, islands and reefs, where undersea gas deposits have been discovered in several areas, has been feared to be Asia’s next potential flashpoint for war.
In the latest flareout, the Philippines and China have figured in a three-month confrontation at the shoal since April 10. President Aquino ordered the pull out of two Philippine sovereign vessels facing off with a number of Chinese ships last June 15, citing bad weather. But Chinese government ships have remained at Scarborough Shoal, a rich fishing ground.
The standoff erupted when Chinese surveillance ships prevented a Philippine military ship from arresting several boatloads of Chinese fishermen who were accused of poaching at the shoal, which has sprawling lagoon teeming with rich marine resources. Manila says the shoal falls within its territory but China has claimed the area has belonged to Beijing since ancient times.
“As your leader, it is my duty to uphold the laws of our country,” the President said. “I do not think it excessive to ask that our rights be respected, just as we respect their rights as a fellow nation in a world we need to share.”
Since the standoff erupted, he said Manila had always demonstrated “utmost forbearance” in dealing with this issue.
As a sign of the country’s goodwill, he said the Philippines replaced its navy cutter with a civilian boat to stand guard over Bajo de Masinloc at the height of the standoff.
Manila also chose not to respond to the Chinese media’s harangues, he added.
Amid tensions with China, the President asked for solidarity from the Filipino people regarding the issue. “Let us speak with one voice,” he said. “Help me relay to the other side the logic of our stand.”
Manila has called for the peaceful and rules-based resolution of the conflicts and for China to respect the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which grants coastal states like the Philippines the right to manage, develop and exclusively exploit resources in areas within its EEZ. The treaty has been signed by the Philippines, China and 162 other states.
While diplomats from the Philippines and China have vowed to find a diplomatic solution to the impasse, Beijing continued to flex its maritime muscle at the shoal, refusing to withdraw its vessels despite repeated pleas from Manila.
“This is not a simple situation, and there can be no simple solutions,” the President said.
He said his administration “is consulting experts, every leader of our nation, our allies—even those on the other side—to find a resolution that is acceptable to all.”
The Philippines has turned to its treaty ally, the US, and other western allies in an ongoing effort to modernize its military and strengthen its capability to guard and defend its territory.
The President said the Philippine military is considering procuring cannons, personnel carriers, and frigates while its second Hamilton-class cutter from the US will be delivered within the year.
“We are not sending paper boats out to sea. Now, our 36,000 kilometers of coastline would be patrolled by more modern ships,” he said.
Two Philippine C-130 planes would also be available soon after undergoing repairs.
Before the year-end, the President said he expected 21 UH-1H or Huey helicopters, four combat utility helicopters, radios and other communication equipment, rifles, mortars, mobile diagnostic laboratories, and station bullet assemblies to be delivered.
By 2013, ten attack helicopters, two naval helicopters, two light aircraft, one frigate, and air force protection equipment will also be arriving, he said.
In addition to these military equipment, Manila would also receive a US$ 30-million defense assistance from the US, which also promised to finance the construction of a National Coast Watch Center in the Philippines.
The center would serve as a hub for rapid information exchange aimed at allowing the longtime defense treaty allies to monitor any development in the West Philippine Sea.