Aquino wants US spy planes over West Philippine Sea
Philippine Daily Inquirer
President Benigno Aquino on Monday said he may ask the United States to deploy spy planes over the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea) to help monitor the disputed waters, a move that could worsen tensions with its giant neighbor China.
China and the Philippines only recently stepped back from a two-month standoff at Scarborough Shoal, a horseshoe-shaped reef within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone. The United States has said it is neutral in the long-running maritime dispute and China has warned that “external forces” should not get involved in the dispute.
“We might be requesting overflights on that,” Mr. Aquino told Reuters in an interview, referring to US P3C Orion spy planes.
“We don’t have aircraft with those capabilities,” Mr. Aquino said.
Last month, Mr. Aquino pulled out a lightly armed Philippine Coast Guard ship and a fisheries boat due to bad weather around the Scarborough Shoal, a group of rock formations about 220 kilometers west of Zambales province.
The West Philippine Sea is potentially the biggest military flash point in Asia, and tensions have risen since the United States adopted a policy last year to reinforce its influence in the region. At stake is control over what are believed to be significant reserves of oil and gas.
China said last week it had begun “combat-ready” patrols in waters it said were under its control in the West Philippine Sea, after saying it “vehemently opposed” a Vietnamese law asserting sovereignty over the Paracel and Spratly islands.
‘Lot of needs’
Mr. Aquino said he had not decided whether to send Philippine ships back to the disputed shoal and had called a Cabinet meeting for Thursday to discuss the issue and overall relations with China.
“We’ll discuss the whole issue of the relationship with China and I would like to get the advice of my advisers,” Mr. Aquino told Reuters in a wood-paneled reception room in Malacañang.
Manila has been looking to its old ally Washington for ships, aircraft and surveillance and equipment as the United States refocuses its military attention on Asia. Manila has offered Washington greater access to airfields and its military facilities in exchange for more equipment and frequent training.
Mr. Aquino met with US President Barack Obama in Washington in early June. In August last year, the US Pacific Command made an initial offer to deploy the P3C Orion spy planes to the Philippines and help monitor disputed areas in the West Philippine Sea after China increased its presence and activities near Reed Bank. The Pentagon offered to share real-time surveillance data with the Philippines while seeking wider access to airfields in the country.
“We have a lot of needs,” Mr. Aquino said. “For instance the coast watch system—we have 36,000 km of coastline. We don’t have radar coverage for all of this.”
More joint exercises
Mr. Aquino also said he would not object to an increased “rotational tempo” for US military forces in the country to help train their Filipino counterparts.
He said China should not be alarmed by Philippine efforts to improve its monitoring capability.
“Does the Philippines have the capacity to become an aggressor?” he asked. “By any stretch of the imagination, the Philippines does not have. So why should it upset a superpower if we’re all reasonable.”
On Monday, Filipino and American sailors and Coast Guards began joint naval exercises in Mindanao.
A total of 450 troops from the Philippine Navy and the Philippine Coast Guard and 500 of their counterparts from the US Navy and US Coast Guard are participating in nine days of joint maneuvers in the Mindanao Sea.
Participating on the Philippine side are four Navy vessels and one Coast Guard ship. On the American side, two Navy ships and one Coast Guard vessel are involved in the war games.
The US forces arrived in General Santos City on Sunday as China sent four patrol vessels to a disputed area in the West Philippine Sea amid a simmering territorial dispute with Vietnam.
Beijing summoned Vietnam’s ambassador to China last month to protest a new law passed by the Vietnamese parliament that placed the disputed Spratly islands in the West Philippine Sea under Hanoi’s sovereignty. Hanoi ignored Beijing’s protest and did nothing to weaken the new law.
In response, China called for tenders from foreign companies for energy development in parts of the Spratlys claimed by Vietnam. Hanoi protested, calling Beijing’s move illegal. Beijing responded by sending four surveillance vessels to patrol the area.
The deployment was the latest move in China’s increasing aggressiveness in claiming territory in the West Philippine Sea. It came as the Philippines prepared to reassert its sovereignty over a shoal it is disputing with China in those waters.
Filipino and American officials said, however, that the war games, the 18th in an annual series called Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training (Carat), had nothing to do with the dispute between the Philippines and China over Scarborough Shoal.
Scarborough Shoal is within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone, but China insists the shoal is part of its territory.
Two Philippine government vessels faced off with seven Chinese vessels at the shoal starting in April.
Mr. Aquino withdrew the government vessels from shoal in mid-June, citing stormy weather, temporarily ending the standoff.
But he threatened to send the vessels back if the Chinese ships and fishing boats poaching in Philippine waters did not leave the shoal.
The Chinese ships and fishing boats did not leave, prompting a Malacañang decision to send government vessels back to the shoal.
The government is also lifting a fishing ban in the area on July 15 to allow fishermen to go back to the shoal, presumably in time for the resumption of the standoff with China.
That will be five days after Carat ends, with Filipino Coast Guards acquiring skills they may need to apply when they return to Scarborough Shoal.
A statement from the US Embassy said Carat was “designed to enhance maritime security skills and operational cohesiveness among participating forces.”
Colonel Arnulfo Burgos Jr., spokesperson for the Armed Forces of the Philippines, said the exercises would involve the surface, air and special operations troops from the Navy and the Coast Guard and their American counterparts.
The exercises cover shore-based cross-training, diving, salvage, air operations, at-sea fleet training and search and rescue operations.
The sea exercises will be held in the Mindanao Sea. The rest will be held in areas controlled by the Naval Forces Eastern Mindanao.
These include in-port training, subject matter expertise exchanges, diving and salvage training in General Santos Bay in Sarangani, and medical and community civic projects in General Santos City and Glan, Sarangani province.
The joint forces will also engage in friendly sports competitions. The games planned are volleyball and basketball.
Captain Dave Welch, commander of the US Navy’s Destroyer Squadron 31 based in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, will lead the American contingent in the joint exercises.
Welch said the joint training with Filipino sailors had nothing to do with the dispute between the Philippines and China over Scarborough Shoal.
“This exercise was planned several months ago,” Welch said. “This is an annual exercise that we do with the Philippine Navy and the Philippine Coast Guard.”
Burgos said Carat was not related to the Scarborough Shoal dispute. He said the venues for the exercise were selected a year in advance.
But one of the Coast Guard vessels participating in the joint exercises is the BRP Pampanga, which carried the Philippine flag at Scarborough Shoal.
On Sunday, protesters staged a rally outside Makar port in General Santos City, denouncing the presence of US troops that arrived on board USS Vandergrift.
Senior Superintendent Ruel Beranggo, General Santos City police chief, said security had been tightened in areas where US troops and their Filipino counterparts would hold medical missions.
Militant groups denounced the joint exercises, saying Carat was part of continued US interference in purely Philippine affairs.
Ryan Lariba, secretary general of the left-leaning Bagong Alyansang Makabayan, said his group would stage a caravan from General Santos City to Glan to dramatize its opposition to the war games.
The US Navy is also conducting Carat with its counterparts in Bangladesh, Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand. Reports from AP; Jerry Esplanada and Dona Z. Pazzibugan in Manila; and Aquiles Z. Zonio and Jeoffrey Maitem, Inquirer Mindanao
Tags: Asia-Pacific , Benigno Aquino , China , Diplomacy , Foreign affairs , Global Nation , International relations , Maritime Dispute , Military , Scarborough Shoal , Senate , South China Sea , United States , West Philippine Sea