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Strong warning to China

In the strongest warning so far to China,  President Aquino declared in his State of the Nation Address on Monday  that the Philippines is ready to defend its territorial  claims in the South China Sea (renamed West Philippine Sea) with beefed-up military forces.

The warning highlighted his first  major foreign policy statement since disputes over islands claimed  by six Asian countries (the Philippines, China, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan) flared into encounters between Chinese, on the one hand, and Philippine and Vietnamese forces, on the other hand, exploring for oil and  marine resources in the area.

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The statement on the Spratly Islands chain dispute was also  the strongest  section of the annual Sona, and drew one of the  loudest rounds of applause in Congress, where the President gave the speech.  The applause indicated the depth  of the national sentiment behind a tough position to stand up  to increasingly aggressive Chinese intrusions and interference with maritime exploration activities especially of the Philippines in the Spratlys.

The President emphasized the tough foreign policy line apparently to dispel  growing  domestic criticism over what is perceived as his weak  and indecisive leadership. There is little doubt from the reactions to this statement that he had broad public support—a point that the Chinese should not ignore to have a clear idea of the depth of Filipino feelings  over the Chinese incursions in the area.

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The President stated the Philippine case with little room for ambiguity: “We do not wish to increase tensions with anyone, but we must let the world know  we are ready to protect  what is ours.”

He said the Philippines would no longer allow other  countries to  enforce their will over it. “There was a time when we couldn’t appropriately respond to threats in our own backyard. Now, our  message to the world is clear: What is ours is ours; setting foot on Recto Bank is no different from setting foot on Recto Avenue.”

The avenue in central Manila is named after the Filipino nationalist, Claro M. Recto. Recto Bank is the Philippine name for the group of islets off Palawan that is being claimed by the Philippines  and China. The Philippines has accused Chinese navy  ships of  harassing a Philippine-commissioned oil exploration vessel near Recto Bank in March, an incident that triggered  a dramatic rise in tensions between the two countries.  The Philippines has also accused Chinese forces of  shooting at Filipino fishermen and placing markers on the same islets.

Stung by the humiliation of being bullied by the Chinese in the recent past, the President said, “At times I wonder if the stories about some of our past stand-offs are true—that when cannons were aimed at our  marines, they could only reciprocate by  cutting down a coconut  tree, painting it black, and aiming it back. True or not, that time is now over.  Soon, we will be seeing capability upgrades and the modernization of the equipment of our armed forces.”

The Philippines is now standing up to China’s bullying and talking tough. “At this very moment,” Mr. Aquino said, “our very first Hamilton Class Cutter is on its way to our shores.”  The biggest ship ever to be acquired by the Philippine Navy, the cutter, renamed BRP Gregorio del Pilar, began its journey to the Philippines from California on July 19.  The 378-foot cutter is a decommissioned US Coast Guard patrol vessel that the Philippines acquired under the US Excess Defense Act. The Philippine Navy classified the  ship as a “surface combatant ship” or warship.  Philippine Navy officials said the ship would be used for, among other purposes, defending the country’s interests in the West Philippine Sea, particularly in waters near the Spratly Islands.

Acquisition of more military hardware to beef up the forces  in the south under the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) modernization program is under negotiations in Washington, D.C.  The President said, “We may acquire more vessels in the future—these, in addition to helicopters and patrol craft, and the weapons that the armed forces and the Philippine National Police need, which the Philippines is purchasing at a significant discount.”

He added: “We are also studying the possibility of elevating the case on the West Philippine Sea to the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea, to make certain that all involved nations approach  the dispute with calm and forbearance.”

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Applying diplomatic pressure to bolster the arms build-up  of the AFP,  Foreign Secretary Alberto del Rosario used strong language last Saturday to denounce China’s claim over the entire South China Sea.  He called the claim “baseless” and a “potential  threat” to the navigation in the region at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations Regional Forum in Bali, Indonesia.

China’s aggressive actions in the West Philippine Sea appears to be motivated by “a hunger to exploit the area’s rich  oil and gas resources,” Del Rosario said.  He rejected the  Chinese claim, saying it had no validity under the United   Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, to which China is a signatory.

Del Rosario pointed out that China’s claim to all of the West Philippine Sea is based on a Chinese map with nine dashes outlining its territory.  This so-called “9-dash claim” to the West Philippine Sea would be rejected by an  international court,  he said.

China’s behavior in the disputed waters has raised concerns about how it would treat its neighbors as it becomes more powerful.

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TAGS: Aquino, featured columns, opinion, SONA 2011, spratlys
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