Friday, 8 May 2015

"Sea Row Overtakes All National Security Concerns"

MANILA, Philippines, May 8 -- With threats from communist and Muslim rebels significantly reduced, preserving the Philippines’s sovereignty over the West Philippine Sea is now the country’s biggest security concern, the government’s top security adviser told a Senate panel yesterday.

National Security Adviser Cesar Garcia made the observation during a hearing by the Senate committee on national defense and security on China’s island building activities in the West Philippine Sea.

He said it was “very clear that our territorial disputes in the West Philippine Sea have in fact overtaken all security issues in our hierarchy of national security concerns.”

In the same hearing, Western Command chief Vice Admiral Alexander Lopez said China had warned Philippine Air Force and Philippine Navy planes at least six times to avoid flying over some areas in the West Philippine Sea.

Garcia noted that the peace process with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) has gone a long way in ending armed hostilities in Mindanao.

He also said the arrest of top leaders of the New People’s Army, as well as new peace overtures from the Communist Party of the Philippines, have greatly eased pressure on the country’s security forces.

“This leaves us with the external security environment and our seemingly intractable territorial disputes in our maritime zone,” Garcia said.

“In an ideal world, we can rely on the skills of our diplomats and the goodwill of our neighbors to resolve these maritime disputes. But unfortunately, we are not dealing with an ideal world,” he pointed out.

“Instead, we are dealing with a world of realpolitik and thus, more than ever, it is very imperative to transition the armed forces from its domestic security focus towards an external or territorial defense role as rapidly as possible,” he added.

He said the government should “seriously rethink” how it can “swiftly capacitate” the Philippine National Police so the latter can take over the “residual internal security responsibilities” of the military. He said this would enable the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) to execute a “transition to a territorial defense role.”

Garcia said he shared a position with defense officials on the need for bigger investment in “whole of nation” defense.

Garcia noted that the current spending by the government for national defense was at a measly 1.1 to 1.3 percent of gross domestic product.

He said the government should increase the allocation to somewhere around two percent, which he said was the usual military expenditure of countries not facing external threats.

Benchmark budget

AFP chief of staff Gen. Gregorio Pio Catapang Jr. said that at the very least, one percent of the approved budget should always be earmarked for the country’s national defense.

This would be equivalent to P26 billion per year, an amount that should go up as the total national budget increases.

“This should be the benchmark. Our capability cannot be developed overnight,” Catapang said, adding that the modernization program of the AFP is being fast-tracked.

Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin echoed Garcia’s and Catapang’s assertion, saying the country’s defense capability is lagging behind other countries in the region.

Committee chairman Sen. Antonio Trillanes IV agreed there was no question about the need to modernize the AFP as soon as possible.

While an arms race with China and other Asian countries is unimaginable, he said the Philippines should at least have “a minimum credible defense posture or at least minimum deterrent capability so that they would think twice and not go in and out of our territory just like that.”

Wescom’s Lopez noted that China has been very busy with its reclamation activities on seven features in the West Philippine Sea, namely the Mabini (Johnson South), Calderon (Cuateron), Burgos (Gaven), Kagitingan (Fiery Cross), Keenan (Chigua), Zamora (Subi) and Panganiban (Mischief) Reefs.

Lopez said these land features were only 134 to 266 nautical miles from Palawan and 238 to 784 nautical miles from the nearest coast of China.

Lopez noted that the reclamation done by China in these seven reefs accelerated in the middle of 2013 and that the reclaimed area has now reached anywhere between 6.8 hectares for Keenan Reef and 100 hectares for Zamora Reef.

In many of these areas, China has constructed several structures, including six-story high buildings and airstrips.

Lopez noted that Zamora Reef has become the focus of the military’s attention, citing an incident last April 19 when Chinese forces ordered in a radio message a PAF aircraft to “go away quickly in order to avoid misjudgment.”

“As we were conducting routine maritime air patrols and flying in international airspace, our air force aircraft were challenged over the radio,” Lopez told senators, adding the planes ignored the warnings.

“The Chinese said our planes were in their military security area,” he said.

China deploys coast guard and naval vessels in the Spratlys, but rarely planes because of the distance from the mainland.

A PAF official who declined to be named said the Asian power could be “testing the waters” to see if it can enforce an air exclusion zone above the Spratly archipelago.

Recent satellite images show China has made rapid progress in reclaiming land around seven reefs in the Spratlys, including building what appears to be an airstrip on one of the artificial islands.

Department of Foreign Affairs Assistant Secretary Benito Valeriano said China has simply ignored all the 11 diplomatic protests filed by the Philippines since April 2014. Beijing has also ignored Manila’s filing of a case before the international arbitral tribunal based in The Hague.

Paper victory

Jay Batongbacal, director of the University of the Philippines Institute of Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea, said the arbitration case may have prompted China to embark on massive reclamation activities in the disputed territorial waters.

“The reclamation that took place is clearly a response to the arbitration. It is a geopolitical-military response to the legal track that we have taken. This reclamation, for all practical intents and purposes, seeks to render any legal victory a paper victory,” Batongbacal said.

He said the dispute with China must be addressed using different approaches and not just through arbitration.

Batongbacal said that the joint exploration and development proposals from China should also be explored, albeit very carefully, in order to ensure that the Philippines does not end up at the losing end of any deal.

International security analyst Rommel Banlaoi said he does not think China has any intention to invade any country with its reclamation activities.

He said China’s actions might be in preparation for possible air-sea battles.

Former senator Leticia Ramos-Shahani, for her part, said the government needs to come up with an independent foreign policy, and get the involvement of local government units, which have stakes in the issue.


Meanwhile, the DFA issued a statement yesterday dismissing China’s accusing the Philippines of building structures on disputed islets in violation of an informal code of conduct among countries with claims in the South China Sea.

In a statement, the DFA said China was distracting the attention of the region and the international community from the “core issue,” which is its “illegal and invalid ‘nine-dash line’ claim.”

“China’s massive reclamation in the South China Sea is intended to advance this so-called nine-dash line claim. These reclamation activities, which are plainly intended to change the character, status and maritime entitlements of the features, prejudice the arbitration and undermine the work of the Arbitral Tribunal constituted under UNCLOS to hear and objectively decide the case,” the DFA said.

The Philippines is contesting China’s massive maritime claim before an international arbitral tribunal based in The Hague, in accordance with UNCLOS or the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

“The (reclamation) activities also threaten freedom of navigation, cause irreparable damage to the marine environment and infringe on the rights of other states,” the DFA added.

“China should adhere to Paragraph 5 of the ASEAN-China Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC) which states that all parties should exercise self-restraint in the conduct of activities that would complicate and escalate disputes and affect peace and stability,” the DFA said.

The DFA issued the statement after China’s foreign ministry accused Manila last Monday of violating the 13-year old DOC with its construction activities on disputed islets and land forms in the West Philippine Sea.

China had also issued similar accusations against Vietnam and other Southeast Asia nations with claims in the South China Sea.

With its nine-dash line claim, China’s maritime domain in effect covers almost 90 percent of the South China Sea, which is believed to be rich in oil and gas deposits.

DFA spokesman Charles Jose told The STAR the Philippines is set to issue another note verbale to China to protest a water cannon attack on three Filipino fisherman by Chinese coast guards. The attack hurt the fishermen and damaged their boats.

A series of high-resolution satellite images, the latest of which were taken in February and March and released by defense publication IHS Jane’s, show that China has intensified the construction of artificial islands by dredging sand from submerged coral reefs and building up land mass, sometimes doubling or tripling the size of existing features. Among at least half a dozen islands being reconstructed, work on Kagitingan (Fiery Cross) Reef has attracted the most attention because of its speed and scale. According to Jane’s, the new island is already big enough for a 9,500-foot runway capable of accommodating big military planes.

The commander of US forces in the Pacific Adm. Samuel Locklear said the construction provides ability for China to deploy, base and re-supply ships and exert greater influence over the contested area.

China could also deploy long-range radars and advanced missile systems as a means of enforcing a future air defense zone over the area. (Rainier Allan Ronda, AP)

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