Sunday, June 19, 2011

Sea exercises

By Elena Aben
Manila Bulletin, Sunday, June 19, 2011

MANILA, Philippines -- Amid mounting tension over disputing claims to islands in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea), the Philippine Navy (PN) joined five other navies from Southeast Asian countries in maritime security exercises with the United States Navy (USN) known as the Southeast Asia Cooperation Against Terrorism (SEACAT), the military said Sunday.

Commodore Miguel Jose Rodriguez, Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) spokesman, expressed hope that after the 10th annual SEACAT, the PN may soon hold the same exercise with the Chinese Navy.

“It’s normal for navies to conduct drills, the Philippine Navy does them all the time,” Rodriguez said. “We’re now having SEACAT with other Asian countries, then by end of June we will have CARAT with the US Navy. No cause for worry. We hope someday we can exercise with the Chinese Navy.”

SEACAT is led by the US Navy and is centered this year in Changi, Singapore, where the exercise command and control center is located. A battle staff from each participating navy is organized in the respective navy headquarters of the participants to monitor all the activities of the exercise.

CARAT, which means Cooperation Readiness Afloat Training, is an annual bilateral exercise that embodies the spirit of the longstanding cooperative relationship between the Philippine Navy (PN) and the USN.

Lt. Col. Omar Tonsay, PN spokesman, said: “Combined navy units from participating Southeast Asian countries hold the SEACAT 2011 exercises as scheduled with the recent conduct of Command Post Exercise (CPX) and preparations for the forthcoming holding of a Field Training Exercise (FTX) on June 20 - 23, 2011 at strategic points of the exercise area.”

According to exercise orders issued by SEACAT 2011 exercise director for the Philippine Navy, Capt. Franco Sebastian T. Pan, the CPX is designed to exercise communication flow and decision-making processes in preparation for the FTX.

Pan said Philippine Navy liaison officers together with their counterparts from the other participating countries will consolidate and be posted at the Change Command and Control Center in Singapore. He added an FTX will take place throughout the Southeast Asia maritime domain particularly along strategic points of its vital sea lanes.

“This includes the movement of the USS Safeguard as the Contact of Interest (CoI) to Philippine area of responsibility for coordinated surveillance operations, tracking, and eventual conduct of Visit Board Search and Seizure (VBSS) aboard the CoI,” said Pan.

Philippines wants peace not war

While moving to upgrade its defense capability, the Philippine government said it seeks peace not war in a territorial spat with China in the West Philippine Sea.

Presidential Spokesman Edwin Lacierda said the government has constantly pushed for a diplomatic solution to the maritime conflict with China, especially the adherence to the international law to preserve peace in the region.

MalacaƱang hailed six Asian neighbors for supporting the call for a peaceful settlement to the sea dispute in the region, saying this has been Manila’s position since the conflict started.

“We welcome the multilateral call of the six ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations)-member nations for a peaceful resolution. We all have a stake in the peace and stability in the region. That has been our country’s call and approach to this dispute in the West Philippine Sea,” Lacierda said.

During a United Nations (UN) meeting in New York City last week, Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam and Laos have called for the peaceful resolution to the conflict in the disputed territory in the South China Sea.

The six countries belonging to the ASEAN also pressed the use of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Seas (UNCLOS) to settle any maritime dispute among neighbors.

Other members of the regional bloc are the Philippines, Brunei, Cambodia, and Myanmar.

“I would reiterate that the Philippines is in total agreement with the statement. ASEAN is united in this,” Secretary Ramon Carandang of the Presidential Communications Development and Strategic Planning Office (PCDSPO) said.

Earlier, President Aquino said the government will not be bullied by China in a conflict over the West Philippine Sea, insisting China should desist from venturing into the country’s legitimate waters.

The President also vowed to increase government spending to upgrade the military’s capability to guard the country’s waters.

“By enhancing the capability of the military, we will no longer be bullied by any nation in times of conflict such as the dispute in the West Philippine Sea,” he said last week.

Meantime, the government is planning to spend around P40 billion in the next five years to enhance the capability of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) in protecting the national territory.

Budget Secretary Florencio Abad Jr. said the government intends to allocate P8-billion increase in the modernization program of the AFP starting next year. Abad explained though that the President approved the additional budget for the military “way before the tensions rose.”

Another P8 billion or higher may be allocated in 2012 depending on the government’s fiscal condition, said Abad.

This year, the Aquino administration allocated P11 billion to bankroll the AFP modernization program.

He explained though that the President approved the additional budget for the military “way before the tensions rose.”

“It’s meant to secure the perimeter of Malampaya (gas field in Palawan). Certainly, it’s not enough to cover our requirements but it is substantial enough to start with,” the budget chief said.

AFP chief Gen. Eduardo Oban Jr. welcomed the planned increase in the military’s modernization program, saying they will produce a list of priority acquisition mainly to upgrade the military’s “baseline capability.”

Among the priority military purchases are helicopters, transport aircrafts, and sealift vessels.

Oban said the Hamilton Class Cutter from the United States will be initially deployed to Palawan, around 80 nautical miles from Recto Bank, when it arrives later this year.

He said the military also plans to increase its “coast watch system” within 200 nautical miles of the country’s exclusive economic zone in Palawan.

He said the AFP modernization program is a priority of the Aquino administration “that has been neglected over the years.”

He said the planned increased budget for the AFP does not yet include investments to strengthen the Philippine Coast Guard.

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