Monday, June 13, 2011

Spratlys row a test of Philippine president's mettle

By Amando Doronila
Philippina Daily Inquirer, Monday, June 13,2011

Manila (Philippine Daily Inquirer/ANN) - The celebration on Sunday (June 12) of the 113th anniversary of Philippine independence was resonant with the theme of national sovereignty, but it was drowned out by messages concerning the territorial conflict over disputed islands in the South China Sea, including those claimed by the Philippines.

The messages also raised the first foreign policy challenge to the mettle of the Aquino administration to defend Philippine territorial claims to the Spratly Islands.

The first message emanates from the warning by China that the United States should not get involved in the disputes over the Spratly Islands since it is "not a party to the dispute".

The warning came as the Philippines and the United States prepare to hold joint naval exercises starting on June 28 at an undisclosed site where the Philippines' Naval Forces West (Navforwest) operates. The site is believed to be in the Sulu Sea and nearby waters.

The Armed Forces of the Philippines' spokesperson, Commodore Jose Miguel Rodriguez, said the exercises, called "Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training" (Carat), had been programmed since last year.

Officials said the exercises were in accordance with the 1951 Philippines-US Mutual Defence Treaty and aimed at testing the capabilities of the two navies to undertake "freedom of navigation operations".

Heightened tensions

The exercises are going to take place amid heightening tensions in what the Philippines calls the "West Philippine Sea" and the others call the "South China Sea" fueled by Philippine protests over alleged intrusions by Chinese vessels into Philippine territorial waters.

The second message: Against claims by Philippine military authorities that the exercises were planned within the framework of the defence treaty, the United States was less reassuring of military aid if the conflict escalates into an armed confrontation between the Philippines and China.

The US Embassy issued a statement on Saturday (June 11) in reaction to a Malacanang (the presidential palace) statement expressing confidence that Washington would honour its commitment under the defence treaty to come to the aid of an endangered ally.

"The US does not take sides in regional territorial disputes," said US Embassy spokesperson Rebecca Thompson.

Thompson said the United States was "troubled by incidents in the South China Sea in recent days that have raised tensions in the region" and that Washington opposed "the threat of force" by any of the countries with rival claims on the Spratlys.

No automatic clause

The defence treaty is nebulous on the circumstances in which the United States would come in to defend an ally against armed attack. It merely says the treaty partners "declare publicly and formally their sense of unity and their common determination to defend themselves against external armed attack".

There is no automatic US intervention clause to aid attacked allies, and amateur spokespersons in Malacanang are extremely naive to expect automatic US intervention if the conflict escalates into war.

At a security forum in Singapore on June 4, US Defence Secretary Robert Gates warned that clashes may erupt in the South China Sea unless nations with conflicting claims adopt mechanisms to settle disputes peacefully.

At the same forum, Philippine Defence Secretary Voltaire Gazmin warned that "actions by other states... unnecessarily make other states like the Philippines worried and concerned". He said such a sense of insecurity also results when ordinary fishermen are warned by foreign vessels to leave the area.

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