US eyes reinforced defense ties with PH

In this file photo taken on March 31, 2021 this handout photo from the National Task Force-West Philippine Sea (NTF-WPS) via the Philippine Communications Operations Office (PCOO) shows Chinese vessels anchored at Whitsun Reef, some 320 kilometres (175 nautical miles) west of Palawan Island in the South China Sea. – AFP pic/National Task Force-West Philippine Sea (NTF-WPS) via Philippine Communications Operations Office (PCOO)

SENATOR Panfilo “Ping” Lacson said the United States is exploring the possibility of strengthening its Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) with the Philippines to prevent further incursions into its territory.

The EDCA supplements the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty and the 1999 Visiting Forces Agreement between the U.S. and the Philippines. It was signed in Manila on April 28, 2014.

Flying in on a private plane on Saturday, November 20, Lacson visited Pag-asa Island, the second largest island in the disputed Spratlys chain in the West Philippine Sea (WPS).

Pag-asa is about 500 kilometers from Palawan and within the jurisdiction of the municipality of Kalayaan. “Gusto nilang [U.S.] i-enhance pa ‘yung EDCA (they want to further enhance EDCA), including funding requirements,” Lacson, a presidential candidate, said.

“I think the United States is becoming a little more aggressive when it comes to the West Philippine Sea issue, which is a good indication,” he added.

U.S. State Department spokesperson Ned Price said on Friday his country is standing with its longtime ally, the Philippines, following mounting tension in the WPS over the Ayungin Shoal incident.

Last November 16, three Chinese coast guard ships fired water cannon to turn back two civilian boats resupplying Filipino troops stationed at the BRP Sierra Madre, a grounded Philippine Navy ship in the Ayungin Shoal that has been converted into a Philippine Marines outpost.

Price agreed that the actions of the Chinese vessels directly threatened peace and stability in the region and infringed on the freedom of navigation guaranteed under international law.

Lacson, chairman of the Senate Committee on National Defense and Security, Peace, Unification and Reconciliation said diplomacy must still reign in dealing with issues concerning the WPS.

Citing his own observations following his visit to Pag-asa Island over the weekend, he said one of the best ways for the Philippines to defend its territorial integrity is to create a “balance of power” in the region.

The Partido Reporma chairman and standard-bearer recognizes that China is a force to reckon with in terms of its military might and economic influence. “A direct confrontation, therefore, would only put our country at the losing end so we need to build a strong alliance with other nations that could rival China’s strength,” Lacson said.

By aligning with other nations that support freedom of navigation in the disputed waters, he believes the country could deter China from bullying its weaker neighbors, which are trying to maintain maritime rights in their own exclusive economic zones (EEZs).

Lacson indicated plans to increase the defensive capabilities of Philippine troops guarding outlying islands and territorial waters, as well as providing livelihood, housing and education to Pag-asa residents.

With Lacson were Partido Reporma president and former House Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez, secretary general and Davao del Norte Gov. Edwin Jubahib, senatorial candidate and former Philippine National Police chief Guillermo Lorenzo Eleazar, spokesperson Ashley Acedillo, and former Interior Secretary and National Unity Party chairman Ronaldo Puno.

In an online message to reporters on Sunday, November 21, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said China has no right to harass Filipino ships within the country’s EEZ.

Lorenzana and Armed Forces chief Lt. Gen. Andres Centino ordered the resumption of resupply missions to Ayungin Shoal.

China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs defended the action of the Chinese coast guard vessels, saying the Philippine boats “trespassed” Chinese waters.

Zhao Lijian, the ministry’s spokesman, said the coast guard ships “performed official duties in accordance with the law and upheld China’s territorial sovereignty and maritime order.” Lorenzana stressed it was China who has been violating the Philippines’ sovereign rights.

He said the 200-nautical-mile EEZ was established by the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos).

China was among the nations that ratified the Unclos, Lorenzana said.

“Therefore, they have no right to impede, prevent or harass our ships within our EEZ whether we are fishing or bringing supplies to our detachment in [BRP] Sierra Madre in Ayungin Shoal,” he said.

He said he has been in talks with Chinese Ambassador to the Philippines Huang Xilian since the night of November 16, when the incident transpired until November 20.

He said Huang had assured him the Chinese “will not interfere” with supply missions to Ayungin Shoal.

“We will see if they are true to their word as our navy will proceed with the resupply this week,” Lorenzana said.

Vice Admiral Ramil Roberto Enriquez, commander of the military’s Western Command which covers the West Philippine Sea, said the supply boats involved in the incident were still under repair after incurring damage.

Even after the repairs are completed, the boats still have to undergo sea trials before being deployed again, Enriquez said.

He said bigger ships from the Philippine Navy, Philippine Coast Guard and Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources cannot be used for supply missions because of the shallow approaches to Ayungin Shoal.

“One wrong move can lead to the ship running aground,” he said.

“What I want to assure our fellow Filipinos is that we will not stop securing our seas,” Enriquez said. n


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