The Philippine Coast Guard on Sunday declared it was ready to deploy a patrol vessel to Panatag Shoal (Scarborough Shoal) in the West Philippine Sea as China announced it had conducted the first landing of a fighter jet on its new aircraft carrier.
The landing was a demonstration of China’s ability to project its military might in territorial disputes with Southeast Asian nations in the West Philippine Sea and maintain its own influence in the area, eyed by the United States in its “pivot” to Asia, a new military strategy that would see half of its warships shifting to the region by the end of the decade.
Lt. Commander Armand Balilo, Coast Guard spokesperson, told the Philippine Daily Inquirer that the BRP Pampanga was “on standby” and “ready for deployment” to Panatag Shoal, where Philippine and Chinese ships faced off with each other from early April to mid-June in a territorial dispute that had gone on unresolved, and marred talks between Southeast Asian nations and China in Cambodia last week.
China has begun issuing new passports with a map of China that includes disputed territories in the West Philippine Sea and the East Sea, angering the Philippines and Vietnam, which protested the new Chinese strategy that they saw as forcing them to recognize China’s claims in the sea.
The latest Chinese display of assertiveness could spark fresh tensions in the sea. The Philippine Coast Guard said the Pampanga was ready to go and all the agency was waiting for was the go-signal from the Department of National Defense (DND) and the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA).
The Pampanga was one of two Philippine vessels that faced off with up to 100 Chinese ships and fishing boats at the disputed shoal.
Balilo said that if the order to deploy came, the Pampanga, a search-and-rescue vessel, could hook up with a Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) ship to resume the watch at Panatag, where three Chinese ships were pressing the Chinese claim.
President Aquino said in June that he would order Philippine ships back to the shoal if the Chinese did not clear the area.
The Chinese did not. On Saturday, Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario, speaking at the Philippine Military Academy in Baguio City, called on China to respect the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ), an expanse of sea 370 kilometers (200 nautical miles) from the coastlines of sovereign states. Panatag Shoal, 220 km west of Zambales, is within the Philippine EEZ.
There were reports on Friday that the Pampanga had left port at Poro Point in La Union province and it was heading for the shoal. The Coast Guard said the reports were not true.
But Balilo said on Sunday the Pampanga was ready to go anytime the order to deploy came.
When it deploys, the Pampanga could come nose to nose with the Liaoning, China’s first aircraft carrier, on which a Chinese-made J-15 fighter jet successfully landed in recent exercises.
“The successful landing … has always been seen as a symbol of the operating combat capability for an aircraft carrier,” Zhang Junshe, a vice director at the Chinese military’s Naval Affairs Research Institute, told state television Sunday.
“This is a landmark even for China’s aircraft carrier … and (moves it) one step closer to combat readiness,” Zhang said.
Video footage carried by China Central Television showed a tail hook on the rear of the J-15 catching hold of a cable on the deck of the aircraft carrier as the jet landed and slowed to a halt.
China had not previously announced that its Navy possessed such highly technical cable landing technology.
The J-15 had also successfully taken off from the aircraft carrier, the Chinese defense ministry said.
The J-15 is a Chinese-designed multipurpose carrier-borne fighter jet based on Russia’s Sukoi 33, equipped with Russian engines and capable of carrying precision-guided bombs, press reports said.
The 300-meter Liaoning, a former Soviet carrier that China had refitted, went into service in September in a symbolic milestone for China’s growing military muscle that comes at a time when Beijing is increasingly embroiled in a series of territorial disputes with its neighbors.
Since the carrier entered service, the crew have completed more than 100 training and test programs, the defense ministry said.
The Liaoning, named for the northeastern province that includes Dalian, is not expected to be fully operational for another three years at least.
Vietnam, disputing China’s claims to islands within its territory, has fighter seacraft and planes, and has actually fought naval skirmishes with China over territory in the Paracel archipelago in the East Sea.
No war assets
The Philippines has no warships larger and more capable than the second-hand cutter donated to it by the United States earlier this year. It has no fighter jets and its military modernization program is looking to acquire only trainer jets.
The Philippine Coast Guard hopes to get 12 brand-new patrol boats from Japan in 2014. With a report from AFP