Friday, June 17, 2011

PH: We are not picking a fight with anyone, but …

By DJ Yap
Philippine Daily Inquirer, Friday, June 17, 2011

The defense department on Thursday said the removal by the Philippines of foreign markers from areas it claims in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea) was a reminder to rival claimants to stay away from those areas but stressed it had no intention of picking a fight with anybody.

Defense Undersecretary Eduardo Batac, who is also the department’s spokesperson, said the Philippine Navy’s action was not meant to stir up trouble but a way to send the message that the Philippines was serious in protecting its territorial integrity.

“We are not picking a fight with anyone, and we do not want to aggravate the matter considering that there have been encouraging statements from China that they would not resort to military force,” Batac said in a phone interview.

“But we would like to remind them, as part of the (code of conduct), that no uninhabited island in the Spratly chain should be inhabited,” he said.

The code is a nonbinding set of guidelines signed in 2002 by China, the Philippines and four other nations claiming ownership of all or some of the isles and reefs in the area to settle their dispute peaceably. It urges claimants to refrain from any action that might escalate tension.

The disputed sea is believed to be potentially rich in oil and minerals.

The Philippine Navy earlier said it removed “foreign” markers installed on three reefs and banks in the Spratlys in May and foiled another attempt last week to reestablish them.

Basis of protest

Asked if such an action would have implications on the dispute, Batac said: “Hopefully not … The Navy took down those markers so they can be used [in our protest over] the incursions. They could belong to China, but we still have no confirmation.”

The Philippines and China have been embroiled in a word war over alleged Chinese intrusions into Philippine territory the past several weeks.

The Armed Forces of the Philippines has cited at least six such intrusions. China dismissed the allegation as based on rumor.

In a briefing with reporters, Batac said: “The message is we’re still trying to get China to explain what happened. Our position is that these areas are well within our exclusive economic zone.”

He said it was important to keep calm, noting that some intrusions might have a valid reason, such as Vietnamese vessels taking shelter from a storm.

“Part of the declaration of conduct is to offer aid to those in danger and in distress,” Batac said.

Navy patrols

The Navy chief, Vice Adm. Alexander Pama, said in a radio interview the Navy would continue its patrols in the area, particularly around territories claimed by the Philippines.

“We would like to emphasize that this is within our exclusive economic zone and it is in our mandate to protect these waters,” Pama said.

Batac said on the phone that the defense department preferred that the Spratlys dispute be resolved at the level of the Asean (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) plus China,” as opposed to China’s insistence on a bilateral approach.

Talks with Clinton

China is wary of intervention by outside powers, particularly the United States.

China’s use of its economic and military power to assert its claims to the Spratlys will most likely be one of the “main talking points” at next week’s meeting in Washington between Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, said a senior Philippine diplomat.

Manila’s “rules-based approach” to settling the dispute will also be discussed, said the source, who asked not to be identified because he has no authority to speak openly on the issue.

Del Rosario will be in Washington from June 20 to 24.

Del Rosario last week said that “where there are disputes, rules provide an effective tool for peaceful and fair resolution.”

The other Spratlys claimants are Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei.

The markers removed by the Navy were on Iroquois (Amy Douglas) Bank, Recto (Reed) Bank and Boxall Reef, all in the West Philippine Sea.

Joint exploration

The Philippine claims ownership of several isles in the West Philippine Sea which it collectively calls the Kalayaan Island Group, located 425 kilometers (230 nautical miles) west of Palawan.

Former Speaker Jose de Venecia has proposed that the Philippines, China and Vietnam revive a 2005 oil and gas exploration agreement to ease tension in the Spratlys, but Communications Secretary Ricky Carandang on Thursday said “it’s premature to talk about that right now.”

“We have yet to make clear with all other countries what our territory is and what are considered disputed. We still have a lot of things to settle,” Carandang said.

He said the Philippines also needed to first iron out pending issues, such as the code of conduct.

“Ultimately, what we do want to see is a way that the resources in the disputed areas can be jointly explored and jointly exploited by the different claimants. But it’s far ahead into the future,” Carandang said.

President Aquino on Thursday used Manila’s recent spat with China over the Spratlys to underline the need to boost tax collection efforts so the government would have enough funds for its projects, including upgrading the military’s hardware.

Addressing the Court of Tax Appeals on its 57th founding anniversary, Mr. Aquino said: “In developing the capacity of the military, we’d no longer be easily scolded by other countries in times of disagreements such as the dispute in the West Philippine Sea.” With a report from Jerry E. Esplanada and Norman Bordadora

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