MANILA - Armed Forces Chief of Staff General Cirilito Sobejana said Sunday journalists independently covering the situation in the West Philippine Sea help the military gain more awareness about the developments in the country's exclusive economic zone.
“With that experience of yours, we have really proven na may pangbu-bully, may threatening, mayroong chasing na nangyayari (that there's bullying, threats, and chasing that's happening),” Sobejana told ABS-CBN News in a phone interview.
“Certainly, nakakatulong [yung footage], kasi nakita natin mismo na nagkakaroon ng habulan (the footage helped because we saw there you were chased by Chinese ships).”
ABS-CBN documented a Chinese Coast Guard vessel and two Chinese Navy missile attack craft chasing its Filipino flag-bearing boat as it attempted last week to enter Ayungin Shoal, where the news team had wanted to interview Filipino fisherfolk.
The shoal, known internationally as Second Thomas Shoal and Renai Ansha to the Chinese, is located within the Philippines' EEZ. Manila keeps military presence in the area through BRP Sierra Madre, which ran aground on the shoal in 1999.
Sobejana reiterated the stance of the Philippine military in the face of the new evidence.
“We do not tolerate such kinds of actions among the Chinese Navy, Coast Guard, or even yung kanilang mga militia (their militia),” he said.
As a response, the military chief said he ordered the Philippine Navy to devote more assets to the West Philippine Sea, “more than what I had ordered initially.”
Sobejana had already ordered the shifting of more naval assets to the sea twice: the first, after China passed its Coast Guard Law permitting its ships to fire upon any foreign vessel deemed as a threat, and second, when a swarming of some 200 Chinese fishing vessels believed to be maritime militia was discovered at Julian Felipe Reef.
“We have to really deploy more naval assets in that area,” he said.
On questions why there is no Philippine naval presence in the sea area where the chase occurred, he said, “Iyong lawak ng lugar (It's vast), we cannot occupy every quarter of the West Philippine Sea.”
“Kaya pinupursige natin yung modernization natin, na magkaroon pa tayo ng more naval assets para talagang ma-saturate natin yung kalawakan ng West Philippine Sea.”
(Which is why we intensify our modernization, so we can have more naval assets to cover the West Philippine Sea.)
The Armed Forces of the Philippines for the past years has been making do with its limited naval and aerial assets, strategically scheduling flights and voyages in order to patrol the West Philippine Sea section by section.
Its two newly acquired frigates – the AFP’s most modern naval assets to date – have been earmarked for deployment to the West Philippine Sea following the completion of its acceptance tests.
With limited eyes at sea, Sobejana welcomes more media coverage of the West Philippine Sea in order to increase public awareness.
He has started this by opening up the aerial maritime patrols to the press.
“Ngayon, yung effort ng media (Now the media's effort) is complementing our surveillance, dahil we have to admit that we have our own limitations. So we should commend these people na nag-find out (who found out) what is really the situation in the West Philippine Sea," he said.
“Iyong mga footage [The footage of ABS-CBN] can be used in filing appropriate charges against China for their incursions.”
Sobejana said the AFP will submit a report to the Department of National Defense, Department of Foreign Affairs, and the National Task Force on the West Philippine Sea.
“We have to put it on record na nangyari yang habulan nung nandoon kayo sa (that you were chased in the) West Philippine Sea,” he said.
The AFP chief is also mulling what he calls “coordinated fishing” efforts, where Filipino fishermen can identify certain areas they want to fish, and Philippine authorities can accompany them there.
Sobejana said he will be summoning their Chinese military counterparts for a dialogue on what transpired in the Philippines' EEZ as soon as the outbreak of COVID-19 cases inside Camp Aguinaldo have been contained.
His message to the Filipino public: do not be afraid.
“Fear is a reaction. Courage is a decision. That’s why we really need to decide now,” he said.
“We have to ensure that our sovereignty is upheld and the integrity of the territory is protected. Hindi namin pababayaan na basta-basta lamang papasukin ng China itong ating (We will not allow China to just enter our) exclusive economic zone.”
China's sweeping claims over almost the entire South China Sea, of which the West Philippine Sea is a part, has been declared to have no legal basis by an international arbitration court.