DND chief, Chinese counterpart cautious over Spratlys dispute
MANILA, Philippines—Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin and visiting Chinese Defense Minister Liang Guanglie vowed to avoid “unilateral actions that would cause alarm” as they assured each other of their commitment towards a “peaceful resolution” of the international territorial dispute over the Spratlys islands in the South China Sea.
During their hour-long meeting at the Department of National Defense headquarters Monday morning, Gazmin, however, did not take up with his counterpart the latest incident of Chinese intrusion last March, when two Chinese Navy gunboats shadowed a government research vessel in the Reed Bank which the Philippines claims to be well within its territory.
Liang for his part denied that they had MIG jets in their fleet of warplanes as his way of denying that the two fighter jets spotted in the vicinity of Reed Bank last March 11 were Chinese.
The Philippine Air Force has not been able to identify the intruding foreign aircraft but corrected previous reports that two fighter jets “buzzed” two of their planes that were on routine patrol in the area.
Gazmin said it was Liang who brought up the matter.
“He (Liang) said that in the inventory of their armed forces, they do not have MIGs and I told them that the Armed Forces (of the Philippines) has continuously denied that they were able to identify the aircraft as MIGs,” Gazmin told reporters after Liang left the DND building in Camp Aguinaldo.
“We do not know the kind of aircraft that intruded into our area because it was at an altitude of 20,000 (feet) and our aircraft was at 5,000 (feet),” he continued.
There was, however, no categorical denial from the top Chinese defense official whether their fighter jets have flown in the vicinity of Reed Bank last March 11.
“No. What came out in the newspapers is that they are MIGs so that’s what he said, that they do not have MIGs,” Gazmin said.
Gazmin said he did not bring up the harassment of a Department of Energy oil exploration vessel by Chinese Navy gunboats at the Reed Bank last March.
“No, that was not discussed, but in general (it) was stated that things should be settled amicably by opening the lines of communication, (through) dialogues and sitting down and talking to each other,” he said.
Neither did they discuss the reported presence of Chinese troops in some of the disputed Spratlys islands, according to Gazmin.
Gazmin described his Chinese counterpart’s official visit as a “confidence-building measure” and said the atmosphere during the meeting was “friendly.”
Liang was given military honors upon his arrival and departure at the DND headquarters.
Before leaving the building, Liang posed with Gazmin and the Armed Forces of the Philippines Vice Chief of Staff, Lt. Gen. Reynaldo Mapagu, before photojournalists and TV crews.
In a statement, the DND said the two officials agreed that “unilateral actions (in the South China Sea) which could cause alarm should be avoided.”
Gazmin and Liang also hoped that the implementing guidelines of the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea would be finalized and agreed upon soon.
The 2002 Declaration signed by China and the 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) is an undertaking to work for a definitive Code of Conduct among the six nations that have laid claim on the Spratlys.
“Both ministers expressed hope that the implementing guidelines of the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea would soon be finalized and agreed upon, that responsible behavior of all parties to the South China Sea issue would help keep the area stable while all parties work for the peaceful resolution of the issues.
“Both ministers recognized that unilateral actions which could cause alarm should be avoided,” the DND said.
Aside from the Philippines and China, the other Spratlys claimants are Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei.
“Both ministers acknowledge the need to ensure that the South China Sea remains stable and recognized the usefulness of the declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea,” the DND statement went on.
Liang visited Singapore and Indonesia before coming to the Philippines.
He is set to return to China at the end of his five-day official visit on May 25.
Gazmin said he might visit China in June.
He said there was no agreement so far about bilateral military exercises since these would first be discussed on the technical working group level.
”That will be worked out. Nothing is final on that,” he said.