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Aquino urged to tackle China in annual speech

MANILA, Philippines—President Benigno Aquino III will deliver his annual “state of the nation” speech to Congress on Monday, with legislators hoping he will tackle an escalating West Philippine Sea (South China Sea) dispute.

Senator Francis Escudero, who does not belong to Aquino’s ruling Liberal Party, said the President needed to reassure the public his government was in control of the situation amid fears of increasing Chinese aggression.

“He must give a form of assurance, or say something about it without of course fanning the flames of misunderstanding,” Escudero told Agence France-Presse ahead of the speech which begins at 4 p.m. (0800 GMT).

“He must assure the public that the tensions will not escalate any further.”

The dispute between Manila and Beijing has intensified since April after a face-off began over the Scarborough Shoal, a rocky outcrop in the West Philippine Sea.

China claims sovereignty over nearly all of the sea, which is believed to hold vast amounts of oil and gas, and is home to vital shipping lanes and one of the region’s most important fishing grounds.

But other countries in the region, including the Philippines, have overlapping claims in the area.

The recent arrival of a Chinese fishing fleet in the Spratly Islands — another disputed territory in the flashpoint waters — has also raised Philippine concerns.

The tensions have dominated local politics and media in recent months, and Escudero’s call for Aquino to address the issue reflects a view among many lawmakers that the China dispute is a top priority for the Philippines.

Aquino’s aides have not indicated if he will address the West Philippine Sea issue on Monday.

They have been tight-lipped about the speech’s contents, highlighting only that Aquino will stress his high-profile anti-corruption drive and overall efforts to improve the economy.

Aquino, 52, won the presidency in 2010 on a campaign promise to eradicate corruption, which he had blamed for massive poverty in the Catholic country of 94 million.

He has since worked to prosecute his predecessor, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, who is now in detention facing charges of electoral fraud and corruption.

Aquino’s allies in Congress also impeached and removed Supreme Court chief justice Renato Corona, a political ally of Arroyo whom she had appointed when leaving office, allegedly to protect her from prosecution.

The bruising impeachment trial polarized the nation, but resulted in the landmark removal of Corona, who became the first head of the country’s top court to be removed in a political impeachment exercise.

Aquino continues to enjoy high popularity ratings two years into his six-year term, but international observers are closely watching his actions over key issues such as corruption and the West Philippine Sea dispute.

Rights groups have criticized Aquino for his failure to stop a culture of impunity in which paramilitary groups with links to the army and politicians allegedly kill opponents, without any punishment.

Police said they would deploy a tight security cordon around Congress for Monday’s speech to thwart “various threat groups” which may cause trouble during rallies taking place the same day.

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Tags: Benigno Aquino , Government , Philippine Congress , Philippines , SONA 2012 , South China Sea , West Philippine Sea

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