Philippines: Dispute with China Remains a Challenge, Despite Friendlier Ties

Jeoffrey Maitem
Cotabato City, Philippines
180326-PH-china-620.jpg Tatsuo Fukuda (in suit), Japan’s parliamentary vice minister of defense, and Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana wave from one of three Beechcraft TC-90 patrol planes donated by Tokyo during a turnover ceremony in the southern Philippine province of Cavite, March 26, 2018.

China’s continued expansion in the South China Sea remains a top security challenge for the Philippines, despite a marked improvement in bilateral ties, Manila’s defense chief said Monday.

Beijing had no territorial rights in Scarborough Shoal, a triangular-shaped chain of reefs and rocks that falls within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said in a speech at a naval base south of Manila.

“We must admit that much is still to be done to boost the country’s military capability and equipment in order to meet a number of persistent maritime security challenges,” Lorenzana said at the turnover ceremony of three TC-90 patrol aircraft donated by Japan.

“These challenges range from territorial disputes with China and other Southeast Asian nations over the ownership of resource-rich islands in the West Philippines Sea, to piracy, movement of armed insurgents in the Sulu Sea and other transnational crimes,” he said, using the Philippine name for the South China Sea.

Lorenzana made the statement three days after Philippine Foreign Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano met China’s new vice president, Wang Qishan, in Beijing when the Chinese official was quoted by the state broadcaster CCTV as saying that Beijing saw Manila as a good neighbor.

“We should comprehensively implement the consensus of our two countries’ presidents, step up communication between our senior officials, deepen our pragmatic cooperation, deal with our disagreements appropriately to enhance our friendship,” CCTV quoted Wang as saying.

China claims most of the resource-rich South China Sea, including areas that reach the shores of its smaller neighbors. Parts of the sea region, through which about U.S. $5 trillion (261 trillion pesos) in trade passes annually, is claimed by Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan.

In June 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague ruled in favor of the Philippines over China, saying there was no legal basis for Beijing to claim “historical rights” in the sea region.

The ruling was hailed internationally, but angered China, which responded by aggressively expanding and militarizing structures it had built in the region, despite earlier agreements to halt all construction activities.

President Rodrigo Duterte, who assumed power the same month as the ruling, made it a point to appease Beijing. He has since undertaken state visits to China and hosted Chinese leaders in Manila’s presidential palace.

Lorenzana said the three Beechcraft King Air TC-90 aircraft could help the country’s maritime air surveillance and reconnaissance capability.

“These aircraft will definitely boost the PN’s (Philippine Navy’s) capability in providing humanitarian assistance and conducting disaster-relief operations,” Lorenzana said.

He thanked Japan’s Ministry of Defense for amending its Self-Defense Force Act to allow the donations of excess military equipment to its partners.

He said the planes were to be placed on lease to Manila, but the defense departments of both countries later agreed to make the deal into grants in November.

Two weeks ago, the Philippines obtained its first of six sophisticated military-grade drones valued at $13.6 million (710 million pesos) from United States, as the two nations stepped up joint efforts to combat pro-Islamic State militants who are active in the southern Philippines.

The Scan Eagle UAS, which can stay in the air for more than 20 hours and have a maximum flight height of 10,000 feet, will provide surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities to the local air force’s intelligence wing, officials said.

Felipe Villamor in Manila contributed to this report.


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