The Philippines and the United States opened on Monday their latest joint war games amid warnings Manila was taking a “macho-like” approach to Beijing’s aggressive intentions in the disputed Spratly Islands.
Military officials stressed that holding part of this year’s Philippine-US Amphibious Landing Exercise (Phiblex 2012) in Palawan was unrelated to the dispute in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea) among the Philippines, China, Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei.
The opening of the exercises coincided with the daylong Forum on South China Sea at the Manila Polo Club sponsored by the Carlos P. Romulo Foundation and the Singapore-based Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.
In an interview with the Philippine Daily Inquirer on the sidelines of the forum, former Foreign Secretary Roberto R. Romulo warned against “a tendency in the Philippines—and we have to be careful about this—to be too macho-like” in dealing with the Spratlys.
Romulo, chairman of the foundation named after his late father, who served as president of the fourth session of the UN general assembly, said that this approach was “very worrisome.”
“Some say never mind, let’s just take them on,” Romulo said, referring to China, whose alleged naval intrusions in the region earlier this year had sparked protests from the Philippines and Vietnam.
“That’s not the way to deal with this,” he stressed.
Code of conduct
Former US Ambassador to the Philippines Frank Wisner told the forum a “code of conduct” was needed to resolve the Spratlys dispute.
“The interest of all will be served by it, and it must be based on principles all of us accept—freedom of navigation, peaceful resolution of differences and the avoidance of the use of force or the threat of its use,” Wisner emphasized.
“The US looks to the nations of this area to find diplomatic solutions to differences. At the same time, it is committed to maintaining a robust military presence in Asia and will support its allies. It will maintain capabilities sufficient to deter conflict. We have already begun to act on these commitments, conducting exercises with Malaysia and the Philippines and responding to President Aquino’s plans to rebuild the military capability of the Philippines,” he said.
No adverse implication
Brigadier General Eugene Clemen, Philippine exercise director, said some 1,000 Filipino Marines and about 2,000 US troops were participating in the 28th edition of the exercises, a part of which will be held in Palawan.
“I don’t think Phiblex 2012 will have an adverse implication on the security situation in the region. We have been doing these exercises before and I think this will not affect the present setup,” Clemen told reporters during the opening ceremony at Fort Bonifacio.
Clemen said the choice of training venues considered the areas where Marine troops were already deployed, including Palawan, which he said offered “a very good training ground” with its beaches and forests.
“Anyway we will not be going out of our territory so nobody could question that,” he said.
Brigadier General Craig Timberlake, US exercise director, said the two forces were seeking improved interoperability, the stated goal of the annual exercises.
“We had an opportunity to conduct exercises there before so this is just us revisiting places that we (have been to). Each year, we try to go to different places and conduct exercises that will allow us to work closer together. So the fact that we are going there, really you shouldn’t read into that,” Timberlake said.
Aside from Palawan, training exercises will be simultaneously held in different venues including Fort Magsaysay in Nueva Ecija; Basa Air Base in Clark, Pampanga; the Marine Barracks Gregorio Lim in Ternate, Cavite; Crow Valley in Tarlac, and the Naval Station San Miguel in San Antonio, Zambales.
The 11-day Phiblex training, which ends on October 28, also includes disaster response and community development. Troops will build classrooms in two barangays in Cavite and Palawan and provide medical and dental outreach services in the host communities.
In the interview with the Philippine Daily Inquirer, Romulo expressed hope that the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) would find a common approach to the Spratlys dispute. Unfortunately, he said, Asean has not consolidated its position.
He said the Philippines was “probably the most aggressive” claimant, setting “a new tone to the discussion” on the issue.
“We can’t take on the Chinese and its Army. But we can certainly internationalize this issue and make sure the world understands what the situation is,” he said. “That in itself is somewhat of a deterrent.”
Romulo lauded moves by Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario to resolve the dispute “on a multilateral basis.”
In his remarks to the forum, Chen Shiqui, former Chinese ambassador to Indonesia and the United Nations, described as “undesirable” moves to internationalize the dispute, echoing Beijing’s position calling for bilateral discussions.
Shiqui, a professor at China Foreign Affairs University, said that a multilateral approach would “only further complicate the situation.”
Claimants, he said, should “solve the disputes properly through bilateral negotiation in accordance with universally recognized international laws, including modern maritime laws and the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea … in a fair and constructive manner.”
“Pending the solution of the disputes, the countries concerned should shelve the disputes for the time being and go in for joint development in the disputed areas,” Chen added.