PH urged to involve LGUs, fishing industry in sea row
MANILA, Philippines–More than modernizing the military or relying on UN arbitration, the Philippines should pursue other tracks and involve more people in resolving its territorial dispute with China that has become the country’s main security problem, a Senate hearing was told on Thursday.
“We have to bring down this issue to the nongovernmental organizations, fisherfolks, owners of fisher ponds and vessels, they will have to be the ones to be the frontline of defense,” former Sen. Leticia Ramos-Shahani said.
Jay Batongbacal, director of the University of the Philippines Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea, said he agreed with Shahani’s call for more people engagement on the dispute, adding that “we need more perspectives, disciplines to address the issue.”
The government should do more not only in the big issue of the territorial dispute but also in solving “day-to-day small manifestations” like the water cannon incidents being experienced by fishermen, according to Batongbacal.
Batongbacal pointed out that the Philippines’ arbitration case in the UN tribunal will conclude in a year’s time and for another, the military’s bid to modernize would be completed only by 2028.
“A lot of things can happen in one year,” he said. “We need to prepare for contingencies … we need to prepare for all possible outcomes, and basically need to engage more people … to address the dispute,”
Batongbacal told the joint hearing of the Senate committees on national defense and security and foreign relations.
Shahani made an impassioned appeal for the involvement of local government units (LGUs) in coastal municipalities to defend their municipalities amid an aggressive reclamation by China of reefs and shoals in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea).
Sen. Antonio Trillanes IV asked Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin if the Philippines had lost Scarborough Shoal, where Chinese coast guard vessels had recently driven away Filipino fishermen.
Gazmin replied, “We are enforcing our laws there but at the moment we have some constraints because of the presence of Chinese vessels.”
Shahani said that local officials did not see themselves being involved in the sea dispute because they believe this was a foreign policy and not a domestic issue.
The former ambassador and UN assistant secretary general said that the entire country should focus on this issue, including common citizens.
‘Imprisoning ourselves in bureaucracy’
“I would like to appeal to those offices here, to the bureaucracy… which should respond to the issue of the West Philippine Sea, not only the DFA (Department of Foreign Affairs) or the DND (Department of National Defense). We are imprisoning ourselves in the bureaucracy… We should be able to speak out,” Shahani said.
One of the “biggest challenges” that she said the country could face was a “major incident” in the disputed area that would see casualties and its escalation to armed conflict.
Batongbacal said that some observers were concerned that “there was no mechanism to handle this kind of crisis point.”
He said the dispute could not be addressed just by one track, like arbitration. He said that the Philippines’ filing of the case against China in the UN tribunal had led Beijing to accelerate its reclamation activities.
Shift to external defense
In his briefing, National Security Council Director General Cesar Garcia said that the territorial dispute with China had “overtaken all security issues in our hierarchy of national security concerns.”
Garcia said the country’s internal security situation, that included the decades-old communist insurgency, had improved in the last five years and thus, “this leaves us with the external security environment and our seemingly intractable territorial disputes in our maritime zone.”
He said the AFP should transition from its domestic security focus towards an “external or territorial defense role as rapidly as possible.” He said the Philippine National Police should be able to take over the “residual internal security responsibilities” from the military.
Both Garcia and AFP Chief of Staff Gen. Gregorio Pio Catapang Jr. pushed for Congressional support of the AFP’s modernization program. Garcia said that the Philippines was second to the lowest among the 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in defense spending.
Garcia said the Philippines only spent between 1.1 and 1.3 percent of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) on defense. He said a study showed that 2 percent of GDP was the “observable military expenditure of countries without threats.”
‘Unnerving’ reclamation activities
Vice Adm. Alexander Lopez, Western Command chief, said that China intensified its reclamation last year and was building six-story buildings and other facilities at Mabini (Johnson Reef), Chigua (McKennan/Hughes Reef), Calderon (Cuarteron Reef), Gaven (Gaven Reef), Kagitingan (Fiery Cross Reef), Panganiban (Mischief Reef) and Zamora (Subi Reef).
What was “unnerving,” according to Lopez, was China’s development of Kagitingan into what they believed was an air base and naval base.
Subi Reef, Lopez said, has also been a “source of air challenges” of Philippine Air Force planes landing and departing Pag-asa Island (Thuti Island), which is part of the Kalayaan Group of Islands in the Spratlys.
He said last week China challenged a Philippine Air Force plane conducting routine maritime air patrols on international air space.
DFA Assistant Secretary Benito Valeriano said that eight diplomatic protests had been filed since April 2014 on the reclamation activities there and three more diplomatic protests against Chinese harassment of fishermen there.
While waiting for the outcome of its arbitration case, Shahani asked what the government should do in the “meantime, when our sovereignty and territorial integrity are at stake.”
The former senator urged the Aquino administration to forge an independent foreign policy, saying the country should be aware that Chinese diplomatic and defense officials comprised a “double-faced enemy.”
PH can’t rely on Asean
Shahani said the country should not rely on Asean to help the Philippine case against China.
“We are for the rule of law but Asean cannot be depended on looking after Philippine interest,” she said, adding that only Vietnam, which has skirmishes with China in the disputed areas, was on its side. She said Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar [Burma] were dependent on China.
“Let’s forge Asean camaraderie,” she said, reminding that Asean has early on in its inception agreed not to interfere in the internal affairs of its members.
Guingona later told reporters that he agreed with Shahani’s bid to make the dispute a “people-to-people issue.”
“Why don’t we involve the LGUs, why not let the governor of Pangasinan and Zambales and governor of Hainan talk?” Guingona said. They could talk in a way that would ensure that fishermen would be allowed to continue to earn a living.
“Let’s try to contact all our governors concerned and hope that they will cooperate, especially on the Chinese side, the governor of Hainan,” Guingona said. He said this was a “novel” idea worth pursuing.
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