Sunday, June 12, 2011

Phl, US to hold war games

By Jaime Laude
The Philippine Star, Sunday, June 12, 2011

The Philippines and the United States are set to embark on a joint naval exercise late this month, but officials said the tensions in the West Philippine Sea have nothing to do with the programmed war drill.

The military confirmed the holding of the joint naval exercises as China warned the US should not get involved in the territorial dispute in the South China Sea since “the US is not a party to the dispute.”

“The joint naval exercise will start on June 28 at the Naval Forces West (Navforwest),” Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) spokesman Commodore Jose Miguel Rodriguez said.

“It has been programmed since last year,” Rodriguez added. There has been no announcement yet of the specific location of the military exercises but Navforwest operates mainly in the Sulu Sea and nearby waters.

The planned naval exercise, called “Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training” or CARAT, is in accordance with the Mutual Defense Treaty between the Philippines and the US, officials said.

This year’s CARAT exercise is aimed at testing the capability of the two navies to undertake “freedom of navigation operations.”

Philippine military officials announced the coming naval maneuvers amid heightened tensions in the West Philippine Sea and the South China Sea stoked by alleged intrusions by Chinese vessels into Philippine waters and into disputed territories, particularly the Spratly Islands Group.

Vietnam earlier announced plans for a nine-hour live fire naval exercise tentatively set for tomorrow off central Quang Nam province, apparently in response to increased Chinese activities near the Spratlys.

The US Navy’s guided-missile destroyer USS Chung-Hoon is underway to participate in the CARAT.

Considered as one of the most powerful warships in the US Navy, the Arleigh Burke class destroyer left its home port at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii late last week and may now be in international waters near the Sulu Sea.

AFP chief Gen. Eduardo Oban Jr. said the arrival of Chung-Hoon has nothing to do with the territorial spat with China.

Navy spokesman Lt. Col. Omar Tonsay said the US Navy vessel has yet to make contact and that it might have to complete a separate mission before sailing to the Philippines.

“There’s no need for them (Chung-Hoon officers) to coordinate with us their activities while they are still in international waters. They will inform us anyway once they reach port. Maybe they have other activities before CARAT,” Tonsay said.

He said the details of the coming joint naval war drill are still being worked out. “We are having a planning conference next week,” he said.

Counting on US

MalacaƱang, meanwhile, expressed confidence that the country can count on US support in defending its sovereignty but emphasized the preeminence of diplomacy in settling territorial disputes.

“We are committed to the resolution of the issue in the most diplomatic and the most peaceful way possible. I haven’t seen the terms of the Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) quite recently but I know that as an ally the United States will help should it reach that point because of the Mutual Defense Treaty,” deputy presidential spokesperson Abigail Valte said over radio dzRB.

She said the AFP leadership would likely take up the territorial issue in the upcoming Philippines-US Mutual Defense Board meeting in Hawaii in August, but she is not aware if President Aquino has specific instructions to Oban.

“As a security issue, that will depend entirely on Gen. Oban. But since it is a security issue, it is normal to talk about the issue in that kind of meeting, but I imagine one way or the other, it will be discussed,” Valte said.

China cautions US

China, meanwhile, cautioned the US to keep its hands off the issue.

“What should be done to settle the territorial dispute should be done on the basis of a bilateral term so the US is not a party to the dispute,” Chinese Ambassador Liu Jianchao said during a forum on Thursday at the Chinese embassy.

“I understand its (US) concern which is really unnecessary, after all this maritime water has always been safe and peaceful,” Liu said.

“We’ve been all trying to make this area a peaceful, stable one and so far the navigation in this area has always been safe and peaceful. So there’s no excuse for an intervention in this area,” Liu said.

“The territorial dispute is a dispute between the claimant parties, not really with a country that’s outside this region that has no relevance to the territorial dispute in this region,” he added.

The ambassador also said any visit by Philippine lawmakers to the disputed territories would be tantamount to encroachment.

Also on Friday, the US said it is troubled by tensions in the South China Sea and urged countries with stakes in the region to work for a peaceful resolution to the crisis.

“We’ve been troubled by some of these reports about the South China Sea and believe they only serve to raise tensions and don’t help with the peace and security of the region,” said State Department spokesman Mark Toner.

“We support a collaborative diplomatic process... and call on all claimants to conform all of their claims, both land and maritime, to international law,” he said.

Rep. Neri Colmenares of the militant party-list group Bayan Muna, for his part, urged President Aquino yesterday not to involve the US in the Spratlys dispute.

He said the US has no business meddling in the Spratlys issue “because it is not part of ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) or even Asia.”

“The forum for the resolution of the issue is ASEAN plus China,” he said.

He added that the Aquino administration should not accept excess defense equipment supposedly being dangled by the US in exchange for its being allowed to meddle in the Spratlys conflict.

Earlier, he urged the administration to elevate the Spratlys issue to ASEAN or the United Nations.

Let DFA do the talking

Sen. Francis Escudero said Aquino’s aides should refrain from issuing statements on the issue and let officials trained in diplomacy do the job.

Escudero, an ally of Aquino, was reacting to Valte’s declaration of confidence in US readiness - in accordance with the MDT - to help the country in the event of open hostilities with China.

Escudero said the DFA should do the talking “instead of the Palace through its spokesperson in order to avoid any faux pas on our part.”

“I urge Palace officials to carefully review the MDT and read through its fine print and get confirmations from the US government through its ambassador if indeed this situation is covered or what the limitations there may be to the application of the MDT from the point of view of the US government,” Escudero said.

Escudero said US Ambassador Harry Thomas Jr., while calling for the full implementation of the 2002 Declaration of Conduct between China and ASEAN, also appealed for calm and stressed that Washington takes no side on the issue.

“I really am hopeful that this issue can be settled without bloodshed and if at all this should escalate, we really have an ally in the US not only as stipulated in the MDT but as a gesture of long-standing friendship,” Escudero said.

“The last thing we like to see happening is to be encouraged and to be emboldened to fight with an assurance of an ally but find ourselves alone in the field. Only because we did not do our own compliance, like checking what we really have in fine print with the US,” he added.

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