WASHINGTON D.C. - Former President Fidel V. Ramos warned yesterday against raising tensions in the South China Sea and urged President Aquino to be more consistent in his dealings with China and the United States.
“The force which is being applied one against the other and continues to escalate should not be identified with the no. 1 and no. 2 superpower,” he told Fil-Am newsmen at the Philippine Embassy. He chided President Aquino for not moving more quickly to engage China in “serious bargaining."
“As early as March, our President was already invited by China to make a state visit by President Hu Jintao. A statement was made by the presidential spokesman – maybe in May. As May was approaching, they said maybe by the end of the year. Let’s not hesitate when it comes to being invited by the superpowers; if the invitation comes from here (US) we jump right away,” Ramos said.
Ramos and military officials here concede the Philippine military has lagged so far behind not only China but the rest of the Southeast Asian region that it has no choice but to make diplomacy “the country’s first and even second line of defense."
Brig. Gen. Cesar Yano, the country’s defense attaché in Washington DC, said they are in the process of revising a “very long wish list” submitted to the Pentagon to reflect current defense needs. He said greater focus is being given to the Philippine Navy, which recently took delivery of a Hamilton-class all-weather cutter in California – rechristened the BRP Gregorio del Pilar – that’s scheduled to be commissioned in Manila in July.
Eight other Hamilton-class cutters are scheduled to be retired this year and Philippine Ambassador Jose Cuisia Jr. indicated they may try to get one more but admitted other US allies are also bidding for the ships. When finally pressed into service, the Gregorio del Pilar will be the biggest ship in the Philippine Navy Fleet.
The Philippines is also interested in long-range maritime patrol planes, radars and other remote sensing equipment, and multi-role aircraft and helicopters.
But Yano explained the country can only seek weapons systems that the military can afford to maintain and operate. "Ultimately, we have to be able to afford having all these modern weapons," he said.
President Aquino had warned Tuesday that tensions over the Spratly Islands could heighten the arms race in the region. “When we have these incidents, does it not promote an arms race within the region? And when there is an arms race, does not the potential for conflict increase?” he asked Chinese Defense Minister Liang Guanglie in Manila.
Ramos, in espousing a “diplomatic build-up” rather than the ratcheting up of a military response, said President Aquino should be driven by the consistency of results from dialogue with Chinese leaders.
“We have to increase and improve the quality of the relationship,” he declared.
“Our leaders in the Philippines and in the ASEAN should get into candid discussions with leaders in the neighborhood, especially China and the US. Our leaders can go now into some hard bargaining so that peace and prosperity can really happen,” Ramos said.
Last March, the Philippines lodged a protest with China and the United Nations after Chinese patrol boats had harassed a Philippine oil exploration vessel in disputed in the Spratly Islands. Last week, two fighter jets reportedly buzzed two Philippine Air Force patrol planes near a part of the disputed isles closer to Palawan province.
Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) chief Gen. Eduardo Oban also admitted that China has built structures on seven different islands, six of which was within the area claimed by the Philippines.
Ramos said that in his private meetings with ranking Chinese leaders, he continued to press for implementation of the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea that centers on the peaceful resolution of conflicts and the shared exploration and exploitation of natural resources. He said that before stepping down in 1998, he had proposed turning the South China Sea into a demilitarized zone but the idea never prospered.