MANILA, Philippines—Vowing to defend the country “up to the last soldier standing,” Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin on Thursday said China had clearly intruded into Philippine territory when it sent a frigate to escort its fishing vessels in Ayungin Shoal.
In a press conference, Gazmin was asked whether he thought China was scaring the Philippines into giving up Ayungin Shoal in the disputed Kalayaan Island Group in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea).
“That could be their message. But we will fight for what is ours up to the last soldier standing,” Gazmin said.
Gazmin said that clearly China had intruded into Philippine territory because it sent a military and not a civilian vessel to the area, pointing out that the shoal is some 222 kilometers (120 nautical miles) from Rizal, Palawan.
The defense chief said the troops guarding Ayungin Shoal would not be pulled out from the area. “That is part of our continental shelf. Why will we leave?” he said.
The Philippine Navy’s BRP Sierra Madre is in the area with a handful of troops.
Gazmin said the latest report he received at 5 a.m. on Wednesday was that a Chinese CMS vessel, a maritime ship, had been spotted in the area. The Philippine military has taken photographs of the vessel, which have been forwarded to the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA).
Journalists were told that the photographs could not be released because these were considered intelligence information.
Asked if China had overstated its message by sending a frigate, he replied, “It is unusual.”
President Aquino on Tuesday announced a $1.8-billion military upgrade to help defend the country’s maritime territory against “bullies.”
In thinly veiled comments referring to China, Aquino vowed during a speech to mark the Philippine Navy’s 115th anniversary that the Armed Forces would be given the resources necessary to protect Philippine sovereignty.
“We have a clear message to the world: The Philippines is for Filipinos, and we have the capability to resist bullies entering our backyard,” he said.
Japan backs PH case
On Thursday, Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario met in Tokyo with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who took office in December, and discussed common security concerns, the DFA said.
“Prime Minister Abe manifested the Japanese government’s support for the Philippines’ initiation of arbitral proceedings last January, pursuant to the Unclos (United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea), in its bid to clarify maritime zones and entitlements in the West Philippine Sea,” the DFA said in a statement.
Japan lays claim to Senkaku (Diaoyu in Chinese) Islands in the East China Sea, which saw tense posturing between Tokyo and Beijing last year.
In a separate meeting during Del Rosario’s two-day Tokyo visit, Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida also reaffirmed Japan’s commitment to boost the Philippines’ maritime security capabilities, the DFA said.
No enforcement mechanism
In an address over the weekend to the graduating class of the Graduate School of Law of Pamantasan ng Lungsod ng Maynila, Supreme Court Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio warned that even if the Philippines won its case in the United Nations, there was no mechanism to compel China to enforce the ruling.
Carpio said the “best recourse” for the country then was to “appeal to world opinion.”
“If a nation refuses to comply with the rule of law, then it becomes a rogue nation, an outcast in the community of civilized nations,” he said.
“A nation that aspires to be a world power but refuses to follow the rule of law is a danger to peace and stability in our world,” he added.
Carpio said the Philippine government was on the right track when it took its case against China to the arbitral tribunal, pointing out that both Manila and Beijing were signatories to Unclos and were bound by the dispute settlement mechanism there.
Describing China’s nine-dashed-line claim to the West Philippine Sea as converting the chain of islands “into an internal Chinese lake,” Carpio said this was “in defiance” of Unclos.
“Today, there is no graver danger to the future existence and survival of Unclos than China’s nine-dash claim to almost the entire South China Sea,” said Carpio, who penned the high court ruling that unanimously affirmed the constitutionality of the 2009 Baselines Law.