FOREIGN Affairs Secretary Albert F. del Rosario on Sunday expressed serious concern over the increasing militarization of the South China Sea, calling the massive presence of Chinese military and paramilitary ships in Scarborough Shoal and around Ayungin Shoal, which are integral parts of Philippine territory, as threats to efforts to maintain maritime peace and stability in the region.
Speaking at the 46th Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) Ministerial Meeting in Brunei Darussalam, del Rosario said the “persistence of destabilizing actions in the West Philippine Sea continues to pose serious challenges for the whole region.”
Del Rosario pointed to China’s increased militarization of the South China Sea, noting a “massive presence of Chinese military and paramilitary ships” at two groups of islets within the Philippines’s exclusive economic zone—Scarborough Shoal and Second Thomas or Ayungin Shoal.
The Philippines had named West Philippine Sea the area encompassed by its 200-nautical- mile exclusive economic zone to distinguish it from the South China Sea.
Del Rosario said the Chinese actions violated the Declaration of Conduct forged in Manila and signed by China, agreeing to maintain a status quo in the area.
The declaration, also signed by Asean member-countries, also committed rival claimants to resolve their disputes “without resorting to threats or use of force.”
Asean members the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei and Malaysia, as well as Taiwan, also have competing claims to parts of the sea.
In 2012 China occupied Scarborough Shoal, which the Philippines calls Bajo de Masinloc, some 105 nautical miles away from Zambales and 700 kilometers from the Chinese mainland. Manila says China has effectively occupied Scarborough Shoal, a rich fishing ground far closer to Philippine land than Chinese, for more than a year.
On Saturday China set the tone of the Brunei event when its state-run media warned the Philippines that its defiance could lead to aggressive Chinese action.
“If the Philippines continues to provoke China...a counterstrike will be hard to avoid,” said a commentary run by the People’s Daily, the mouthpiece of the ruling Communist Party.
MALACAÑANG said over the weekend that anxiety over the impact of a reported return of military bases on business locators in former US facilities-turned-economic zones is premature.
Deputy Presidential Spokesman Abigail Valte allayed concerns aired in the wake of reports that Clark Air Base and Subic Naval Base, that have been converted by law into economic zones after US military facilities shut down in 1991, may be the subject of yet another transformation—this time, to allow them to grant “increased access” to US, even Japanese, forces as America pivots to Asia and tensions grow on the South China Sea.
Asked if the shift to grant increased access to US troops could shake business confidence among the zone locators about the safety of their businesses, Valte indicated that the Aquino administration has not made any firm commitment on this despite increasing tension with China over conflicting territorial claims in the West Philippine Sea.
“At this point, we don’t want to discuss any details primarily because the details are still being studied,” Valte said, adding, “So, perhaps it its better to have that discussion when the defense department has a firmer proposal.”
She confirmed that Department of National Defense (DND) officials are “still discussing...what we loosely call now the ‘access agreement.’ I think that is what everybody loosely refers to as the access agreement; the details are still studied.”
She noted that the assurance from the DND is that whatever comes out of the study, the arrangement will follow the Constitution and the Visiting Forces Agreement. But she also admitted in Pilipino that they do not know at this time if this will be covered by a separate treaty because the defense department is still discussing its “shape and form.”
Talk of granting “increased access” grew last week after Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin met separately with US officials and Japan’s defense minister. He said Manila was seriously studying the possibility of granting increased “access” to American military forces as its way of cooperating in the “US rebalance strategy” and, impliedly, getting US assurance of support should Chinese aggression heighten in the maritime dispute with the Philippines.
In addition, Gazmin said Manila was open to granting greater access to Japanese military forces, as well.
Defense authorities used the phrase “rotational presence” to stress that no permanent basing setup is contemplated.
Under the Bases Conversion Development Act, passed by Congress years after the Senate voted not to extend the RP-US Military Bases Treaty in 1991, the former sprawling baselands were converted into economic zones.
Clark in Pampanga was the home of the US 13th Air Force, and now hosts the Diosdado Macapagal International Airport while Subic was the largest US Navy installation outside the continental US.
Although Subic Free Port hosts a wide range of global and local businesses, Subic Bay has been hosting an increasing number of US warships that making stops for reprovisioning and rest and recreation of personnel in the country the past few years.