MANILA - The Philippine Navy chief on Monday defended President Rodrigo Duterte’s order for the Navy to stop participating in joint naval exercises in the South China Sea, except if it is within the 12-nautical mile territorial sea.
Navy Vice Admiral Giovanni Bacordo said Duterte’s order was in complete adherence to the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC), particularly citing the treaty's provision No.5, which states that “the Parties undertake to exercise self-restraint in the conduct of activities that would complicate or escalate disputes and affect peace and stability.”
“So if you’ll notice, the participants to these South China Sea exercises, these are countries like the US, Japan, Australia, and probably India, who are not signatories to this 2002 Declaration of Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea,” Vice Admiral Giovanni Bacordo explained.
“Our guiding principle here is adherence to the rule of law.” A joint exercised that could be misinterpreted, Bacordo said, can justifiably be avoided.
China however is a signatory to the declaration as well and has grossly violated the same provision that the Philippines swears to uphold.
The entirety of Provision No. 5 reads that "the Parties undertake to exercise self-restraint in the conduct of activities that would complicate or escalate disputes and affect peace and stability including, among others, refraining from action of inhabiting on the presently uninhabited islands, reefs, shoals, cays, and other features and to handle their differences in a constructive manner.”
The 2002 DOC was already in force when the Asian superpower started building its seven artificial islands in the South China Sea, which are now fortified and militarized, many of which are inside the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone.
"China signed this 2002 DOC, but we have observed so many violations also of China. Well, that’s China. We are guided by the rule of law. We want to maintain the moral high ground," Bacordo said.
The Navy chief assured Philippine security forces “continue to patrol the exclusive economic zone in the West Philippine Sea areas, only in the areas which concern us.” In doing so, Bacordo said they have observed “continued presence of Chinese Navy ships, Coast Guard vessels, maritime militia boats, and fishing vessels.”
“When they leave,” Bacordo said, “newer vessels take over. It’s like a guard. You are relieved of your duties, another one takes over.”
He described the Chinese military’s movement as, “they are closely watching us, but they are not intervening,” adding that there have been fewer vessels ever since the US declared that virtually all of China’s claims in the disputed waters are illegal.
Both the US and China’s military activity have increased in the South China Sea in the past months, but Bacordo said the Navy will continue to adhere to the Philippine government’s diplomatic approach.
“The way I analyze it, in our dispute in that area, the first one to fire the shot becomes the loser. So they (China) will do everything for us to take aggressive action,” said Bacordo.
“I’m sure they want us to take the first shot. But we will not.”