US, PH forces off Panatag Shoal
The Philippine Navy’s flagship, the BRP Gregorio del Pilar, is back in the waters near Panatag Shoal (Scarborough Shoal), this time not for a face-off with Chinese warships over disputed territory in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea) but for five days of joint maneuvers with the United States Navy.
The Philippines’ first warship will be participating in war games with a fleet of American naval vessels led by the guided-missile destroyer USS Fitzgerald.
Panatag Shoal is a reef in the Philippine Sea claimed by both the Philippines and China and was the site of a maritime standoff between the two countries that lasted more than two months last year.
Far from Panatag
But the war games will take place 108 kilometers away from the disputed shoal, Lt. Cmdr. Gregory Fabic, spokesman for the Philippine Navy, said last week.
With the joint maneuvers playing out that far from the shoal, reportedly still guarded by three Chinese coastal patrol vessels, the Philippines and the United States do not expect China to view the exercises as “intimidation,” Fabic said.
The war games, called Exercise Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training (Carat) 2013, begin Thursday and will run up to July 2.
Fabic said holding Carat near Panatag Shoal and other areas off northern Luzon had been planned long before the standoff with China at the reef last year.
The Naval Forces Northern Luzon is the primary Philippine Navy unit responsible for the exercise.
“The Carat 2013 major objectives are to enhance the current Philippine Navy and US capabilities in naval operations … such as communication, naval gunnery, at-sea operations, maritime interdiction and humanitarian assistance and disaster response operations and increase the level of interoperability between the Philippine Navy and the US Navy in the conduct of combined naval operations,” a statement from the Naval Forces Northern Luzon said Wednesday.
It said the exercises would include in-port and at-sea events, individual and unit training, and engagement with the local community, among other activities.
Aside from BRP Gregorio del Pilar (PF-15), a PN Aircraft (Islander), Special Boat Team, Diving Team of Naval Special Operations Group (NAVSOG), Construction Team from the Naval Engineers and Philippine Marine Corps company will participate in the military exercises “to test their readiness and capability,” the Navy said.
It added that the Philippine Coast Guard would have one of its flagships, the BRP Edsa, joining the war games, as well as a helicopter, its diving team, and a visit, board, search and seizure team.
Aside from the USS Fitzgerald, the US Navy will have its salvage ships, the USNS Safeguard and USNS Salvor in the waters off Zambales.
Members of the US Marine Corps and other specialized personnel will also participate in the war games.
The USS Fitzgerald was sent to the Korean Peninsula last April amid tensions between South and North Korea. It also participated in the joint military exercises between the United States and South Korea, rankling the North.
Technically, the Philippines and China remain in a standoff at Panatag Shoal.
Philippine ships withdrew from the shoal in mid-June last year at the height of a storm to ease tensions in the area.
But despite an agreement to withdraw, the Chinese ships never left and even cordoned off the mouth of the shoal’s lagoon to prevent the entry of fishing boats from other countries.
With nothing to match China’s military might, the Philippines took the dispute to the United Nations in January for arbitration.
The Philippines and China also have rival claims in the Spratly archipelago, a scattering of islets, reefs and atolls in the middle of the West Philippine Sea believed to be sitting atop vast deposits of oil and gas.
Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam and Taiwan also claim parts of the Spratlys in rivalry with China, which claims nearly all of the sea as its territory.
Japan’s defense chief
China is also locked in a territorial dispute with Japan over a group of islands in the East China Sea known to the Japanese as the Senkakus but which the Chinese call Diaoyus.
Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin is meeting Thursday with Japanese Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera, who is visiting the Philippines for two days.
Whether the meeting between Gazmin and Onodera has to do with their countries’ territorial dispute with China is unclear, as there was no word about it in the advisory issued by the Department of National Defense on Wednesday.
A recent news report from Japan Times (www.japantimes.co.jp/news) said that Onodera “plans to discuss with Philippine Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin the current tensions in the region and to work out a coordinated response toward China.”
But even this was unofficial, as the Japanese report quoted an unnamed government source.
From Manila, Onodera will fly to Hawaii supposedly to discuss with US officials its territorial row with China.
Wednesday’s advisory said that Onodera will arrive at the defense department at 10 a.m. and will be given arrival honors.
Limited press con
Onodera will meet with journalists after his call and lunch with Gazmin.
The advisory said Onodera would entertain “a maximum of two questions each from the Japanese media (including members of the Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines) and Filipino defense reporters.