MANILA, Philippines —The Philippines plans to “maximize the benefits” that can be derived from its Mutual Defense Treaty with the United States during the “2 + 2″ meeting between Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario and Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin, and their US counterparts—Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta—scheduled for April 30 in Washington.
This was disclosed on Thursday by Del Rosario during a press briefing at the Department of Foreign Affairs headquarters in Pasay City. “This is a good time to do it,” he said.
Aside from the US, Manila has been “trying to enlist the assistance of our international partners,” like Japan and Australia, among others, in building a minimum credible defense posture, he said.
However, according to Del Rosario, the Philippines is not motivated by the Scarborough Shoal dispute in establishing such a position.
“This minimum credible defense posture was discussed as early as last year, but the resolve to strengthen our military has been decided since Day 1 of the Aquino administration,” Del Rosario pointed out.
Nevertheless, the standoff between the Philippines and China over the shoal, which Manila calls Bajo de Masinloc and Panatag, has been tabled for discussion during the 2 + 2 meeting in the US capital, he said.
On Friday, the DFA head is scheduled to meet with President Benigno Aquino at Malacañang to “review the proposed agenda” of the Philippine side in that meeting.
“It looks like we will have a very good meeting that’s ahead of us where we’d be able to discuss our strategic alliance,” Del Rosario told reporters.
According to Del Rosario, “discussions on the Scarborough Shoal and West Philippine Sea issues will come up under the topic maritime security, where we certainly will be discussing freedom of navigation, unimpeded commerce and the safe transportation of people in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea).”
Asked if they would ask the US government’s help in resolving the dispute, he said they “would want all nations, including the US, to make a judgment as to what’s happening there and what the implications are to their own countries.”
“I think that all states have an interest in what is happening (in the West Philippine Sea),” he pointed out.
He claimed Washington had already taken a “very constructive role” in resolving the Spratlys dispute, where it had pushed for the application of international law in solving the problem.
He referred to the Scarborough Shoal issue as a “manifestation of a greater threat to those countries which utilizes the South China Sea and which are concerned about freedom of navigation and unimpeded commerce.”
“I think all nations should be carefully watching what’s happening there,” he emphasized.
Earlier, he asked the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to take a stand on the dispute with China.
He noted “all, not just the Philippines, will ultimately be negatively affected if we do not take a stand.”
Del Rosario observed “if you take a good look, it appears to us that China wants to establish the rules. Obviously, there’s negative implication for everyone, not just the Philippines.”
The Chinese government “has violated the (ASEAN) Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea for not allowing us to enforce our laws (in the country’s 200-nautical mile Exclusive Economic Zone),” he pointed out.
On Thursday, the 16th day of the impasse between the Philippines and China, he disclosed that “we have two (Coast Guard) vessels and two Filipino fishing boats in the shoal area.”
On the other hand, the Chinese “also has two (maritime surveillance) vessels, in addition to six fishing boats.”
Del Rosario also reported that “two unidentified aircraft flew over the shoal area around midnight while another unidentified plane flew over the same area at around 1:25 a.m. (Thursday).”
But he said “the situation has been normal with no monitored harassment from the Chinese vessels,” he said.
On Beijing’s call not to “internationalize” the Scarborough Shoal issue, Del Rosario said “we are making efforts to solve it peacefully.”
He referred to what he called an “overall plan,” composed of three tracks: political, legal and defense.
For the political track, Manila has been pushing for the transformation of the entire West Philippine Sea into a Zone of Peace, Freedom, Friendship and Cooperation (ZOPFFC).
The ZOPFFC has been advocating a rules-based approach to settling disputes in accordance with the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), he explained.
For the legal track, the country has been coordinating with other government agencies and international legal luminaries for the possible availment of dispute settlement mechanisms under UNCLOS.
For the defense track, Del Rosario said the Philippines has committed to improve its national defense by building a minimum credible defense posture to protect its national sovereignty.
Scarborough Shoal lies north of the Spratlys and 124 nautical miles west of Zambales province.
The Philippines has filed a protest with the UN, challenging China’s nine-dash claim that encompasses the whole West Philippine Sea.