MANILA - Political will, not "floating vessels" nor "fighter jets", is the primary capability the Philippines needs to protect its rights in the West Philippine Sea, a military official said Monday.
The government needs to show it is "serious in protecting its rights" in the West Philippine Sea for other nations to respect Manila's claim in the disputed area, Lt. Gen. Antonio Parlade Jr. told the Commission on Appointments.
"The first capability that we need is the wherewithal to send the message that this government is serious in protecting its rights," said Parlade, commander of the Armed Forces of the Philippines Southern Luzon command.
"It doesn't matter if we only have a few floating vessels. It doesn't matter if we only have a few fighter jets. As long as we are clear and we are unequivocal about this position, then I guess the message would be very, very clear to other governments - not only China but other states with interests," he said.
Aside from China and the Philippines, other claimants in the South China Sea are Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam and Taiwan.
China has been accused of militarizing the South China Sea, including features within the Philippines' exclusive economic zone since 2013, insisting that Beijing owns nearly the entire waterway where billions-worth of goods pass by annually.
"We reported all the reclamation as early as 2013... All of these were documented but nobody took action... until they were able to completely establish military bases in the West Philippine Sea," Parlade said.
"If at the start we told China to stop the reclamation, then probably we could have nipped it at the bud," he said.
Manila lodged an arbitration case against Beijing on the South China Sea in 2013. The arbitration court ruled in favor of the Philippines in 2016, but President Rodrigo Duterte shelved the award in favor of better economic relations with China.
Despite a campaign promise that he would "ride a jetski" to one of the disputed areas to assert Philippine sovereignty, Duterte said in his fifth State of the Nation Address that he is "inutile" as regards Chinese aggression in the South China Sea.
The Philippines "cannot afford" to wage war against the world's second largest economy, the President had repeatedly said.
China has fortified its reclaimed islands in the South China Sea with military installations, and drives away Filipino fishermen from traditional fishing grounds in the area.
"We would abide with whatever the President, our Commander-in-chief, would tell us... but we are not saying that we are foregoing the ruling of the arbitral tribunal," Parlade said.
He said the responsibility to protect the Philippines' interests in the West Philippine Sea should not be solely given to the military.
The Department of Foreign Affairs, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, and the Philippine Coast Guard should "really integrate" efforts in defending the country's claim in the disputed waters, he said.
"It is not really about capabilities. It is our resolve... our political will to make sure that those interest are protected," he said.