MANILA, Philippines - The Western Command (Wescom)’s intensified aerial and naval patrols over the West Philippine Sea have not spotted or monitored any new Chinese vessels entering the country’s maritime domain for several days now.
The increased air and naval activities in the country’s territorial waters were Wescom’s move to verify if China had really started deploying patrol vessels to the hotly contested region, as it had earlier said, to safeguard its own marine resources and enforce its maritime laws beginning this month.
“We conducted aerial recon the other day. We didn’t see any of the new vessels that China announced it will deploy in the West Philippine Sea. I understand also from reports that China has already retracted its statements that they will board and search all vessels passing through the West Philippine Sea,” Wescom commander Lt. Gen. Juancho Sabban told Camp Aguinaldo reporters during the military’s traditional New Year’s call.
China earlier said that its vessels would start patrolling the South China Sea (West Philippine Sea) to intercept and board foreign vessels entering its “maritime territory” without prior coordination or clearance.
Beijing later retracted this statement, saying the maritime patrol will only cover sea lanes near its island province of Hainan, amid negative reactions from non-claimant countries who use the West Philippine Sea as primary route for trade and commerce.
Claiming almost the entire South China Sea, China established and fortified its military naval occupation of the Panganiban Reef (Mischief Reef), an area well-within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ) near Palawan.
China’s claim over Panganiban Reef, aside from citing historical facts, is based on a self-imposed nine-dash line indicating ownership of the entire sea in the region to include even coastal waters of several Southeast Asian countries, such as the Philippines and Vietnam.
“We should stick to international law and China should respect our territory and sovereignty,” Sabban said, adding that while Beijing has modern vessels, everything still boils down to the respect of international law to resolve the territorial row.
He said any aggressive moves by any claimant country in the West Philippine Sea would affect other countries outside the region, since the West Philippine Sea is a busy sea lane.
Wescom said it has no problem with China’s sending vessels to the region for as long as these are on innocent passage.
“Everybody has the freedom of navigation in that area. We will consider that as innocent passage based on international law,” Sabban said.
On Vietnam’s reported establishment of a supermarket in Pugad Island to cater to the needs of local and foreign tourists, the Wescom commander said this can also be done by the local government of Kalayaan town located in Pag-Asa Island.
Filipino fishermen who sought shelter in the Vietnam-held island during a storm late last year reported that a supermarket was in full operation there.
However, Kalayaan Mayor Eugenio Bito-onon Jr. said they are still validating this report, which could be confirmed through diplomatic channels.
AFP hoping for more peaceful year
Sabban gave assurance that the country “will adhere to the provisions of the UNCLOS (United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea).”
When asked if they expect China to be more aggressive in the West Philippine Sea, he said: “I don’t what to forecast on this but we are hoping that this year will be more peaceful than the previous years that we had.”
Sabban said any country that violates international law will be subjected to pressure from other countries that are affected.
But he said that the areas occupied by Filipinos in the West Philippine Sea should be developed to promote economic development.
“That means we should provide them with basic necessities such as hospitals, markets, and of course piers and airports which are existing. They only need repair and maintenance,” he added.
The Armed Forces Western Command and civilians currently inhabit Kalayaan, a fifth class municipality in Palawan located on Pag-Asa Island.
Pag-Asa Island is one of the country’s regime of islands and reefs in the disputed Spratlys region being claimed in whole by China and in part also by Malaysia, Vietnam, Brunei and Taiwan.
The Philippines has built a town hall, a 1.3-kilometer airstrip, a naval station, a health center and recently a kindergarten in the island.
Sabban hopes to see the completion of the repairs of the 40-year-old airstrip in Kalayaan before he retires in April.
“The airstrip is operational. We can land our own planes there but it needs repairs due to erosion in some portions,” he said.
“This will spur economic development for inhabitants of those islands, this will create livelihood. This will also attract tourists.” -- with Alexis Romero