Photo provided by the Armed Forces of the Philippines shows construction on Kagitingan (Fiery Cross) Reef in the Spratly Islands.
MANILA, Philippines - With China’s actions threatening to “considerably alter the way of doing business globally,” President Aquino will ask the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to take a united stand against Beijing’s massive reclamation activities and other provocative acts in the West Philippine Sea and South China Sea.
Aquino will raise the appeal to his ASEAN counterparts when they meet on April 27-28 in Kuala Lumpur and Langkawi in Malaysia.
Beijing reacted immediately to the plan, saying the maritime dispute is not an issue between China and ASEAN.
“The President has said this is already a global issue, not just a bilateral issue or even a (regional) issue. So what we are pursuing is this track of making people from other parts of the world aware of the seriousness of what is happening on the ground and on the seas,” Foreign Affairs Assistant Secretary Luis Cruz said yesterday in a press briefing.
Cruz said the Philippines would aim for “a collective statement” from ASEAN leaders on China’s reclamation activities. But he stressed the summit is “not a negotiation among the leaders” and that “they will be there to express their views, not only on the South China Sea, but what they think are the security issues in the region and internationally.”
While the President is expected to raise more issues in the coming summit than in the previous one in Myanmar, the reclamation issue would “definitely be the main topic,” Cruz said.
In a separate briefing, Presidential Communications Operations Office Secretary Herminio Coloma Jr. said ASEAN leaders are likely to discuss “real time and current concerns,” especially the situation in the West Philippine Sea.
“We know that the reclamation activities represent a significant development in the evolution of developments in the West Philippine Sea or in the South China Sea and the Philippines is not the only one concerned about this. Other countries have made a lot of pronouncements already,” Coloma said.
“So it is reasonable and logical that when this is discussed by the leaders of different countries comprising ASEAN, they will discuss the situation and how it can be compared from the past,” Coloma said.
As strong as G-7 stand
Cruz said they hope an ASEAN stand on the issue would be as strong or stronger than the one issued by the Group of Seven industrialized nations.
But he said they would leave it up to Malaysia – as summit chairman – to report on what transpired or was agreed upon during the two-day summit.
The G-7 issued a communiqué on Wednesday last week seeking a stop to provocative actions in disputed waters, particularly land reclamation. The G-7 did not mention China by name, but its communiqué came on the heels of Beijing’s defense of its reclamation projects.
“The President has already said that this is not a bilateral issue, this is not a regional issue, but the world should really be concerned on this issue because of several things, not only the freedom or the safety of navigation, but also the damage that is being done to the marine environment in the area,” Cruz said.
Cruz said the Philippines would continue to push for a code of conduct from the current Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea because a “legal instrument” is needed to guide the behavior of countries involved in the maritime row.
“At this point in time, I think the level of discussion of that joint working group (for the code of conduct) is to identify the elements that can easily be achieved or agreed upon, or what they call the ‘low-hanging fruits,’” Cruz pointed out.
“The President has already said that at least 40 percent of global trade pass through these waters, and if you look at the specific countries in the region, the percentage should even be higher – higher than 40 percent, especially countries in Northeast Asia,” Cruz pointed out.
“Aside from the Pacific, the only passage to the Middle East, to Europe, to Africa, to parts of Asia would be through the South China Sea,” he said.
Asked how Manila would make Beijing realize that the latter is engaged in double-talk and not really serious about a peaceful resolution of the dispute, Cruz gave assurance there are “various ways of doing it,” including discussions behind closed doors. He stressed he was “not at liberty” to discuss the other ways.
“But let me say that we are pursuing other tracks with China. Of course, what is official is that we have submitted this issue before the International Tribunal because we wanted a decision on our entitlements in the regime of waters under UNCLOS,” Cruz said, referring to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.
Cruz expressed confidence that host Malaysia would support a strong ASEAN position on the issue.
“For one thing, they are also claimants. I’m sure they are very much concerned with this issue. Secondly, as chair, of course they would want to project leadership, and leadership does not only come with how you’re able to organize the series of meetings for the rest of the year, but also how you manage the issues as they pertain to ASEAN activities,” Cruz said.
Vietnam eyes Noy meet
The DFA official also said Vietnam is seeking a meeting with President Aquino on the sidelines of the ASEAN summit, with the maritime dispute with China high on the agenda “because both countries are affected by the developments in the South China Sea.”
Cruz said that while a meeting between Aquino and Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak is not yet in the schedule, “I will not preclude the possibility of them having this one-on-one meeting” because “normally the chair meets individually with his counterparts.”
Vietnam and Malaysia also have claims in the South China Sea, along with Brunei and Taiwan.
Malaysia is also the facilitator in the peace negotiations between the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front.
Coloma said details of a possible strategic partnership are still being worked out.
The President will leave for Kuala Lumpur on April 26 for a gala and barbecue dinner to be hosted by the Malaysian prime minister and his spouse and stay there until Monday for the summit plenary session and meetings with representatives of the ASEAN Inter-Parliamentary Assembly, ASEAN Business Advisory Council, ASEAN Youth and Civil Society Organizations.
According to Cruz, the ASEAN integration targeted for this year would also be discussed, along with people-to-people centered programs and projects and a Malaysian initiative regarding a global movement of moderates against extremism.
“That initiative has been on the table for several years already. So global movement of moderates would pertain to like-minded states on how to combat the issue of extremism and prevent terrorism from flourishing in the region,” Cruz said.
Regarding the ASEAN integration due by December this year, Cruz clarified that “it is not the end-all and be-all of ASEAN community-building exercise.”
For Armed Forces chief Gen. Gregorio Catapang Jr., recent developments in the West Philippine Sea have put the country in a “very difficult situation.”
“We are really amazed by the pace of China’s reclamation. It’s fast but I hope it’s not furious,” Catapang said in a press conference yesterday.
“We are in a very difficult situation because now, they are reclaiming the Mischief Reef. If they reclaim Mischief Reef, we will be cut off,” he added. The Philippines calls Mischief Reef Panganiban Reef.
He said if Panganiban Reef falls into China’s hands, it would become difficult or even impossible for Filipinos to gain access to Ayungin Shoal (Second Thomas Shoal) and Pag-Asa Island. Panganiban is only 135 miles west of Palawan.
Ayungin Shoal is being secured by a handful of Marines stationed on BRP Sierra Madre, a grounded World War II era Navy ship that serves as a Philippine military outpost.
Chinese ships have set up a blockade to prevent the Navy from sending supplies to the decrepit vessel, which has come to symbolize the Philippines’ fragile ownership of the shoal.
Pag-Asa Island, meanwhile, is the biggest island held by the Philippines in the disputed Spratlys archipelago, which is also being claimed in whole or in part by China, Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia and Taiwan.
The island group comprises Kalayaan, a fifth class town under Palawan inhabited by around 200 people. The Philippines has constructed a town hall, a 1.3-kilometer airstrip, a health center, a school and a naval station to assert its sovereignty over the area.
While the Philippines only has modest facilities in Kalayaan, China has installed advanced equipment in its controlled areas, including Panganiban Reef.
The Chinese government has built a garrison, a windmill, solar panels, a concrete platform designed as helipad and a basketball court on the reef, which is within the Philippines’ 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone.
“We have an arc of defense and if the Mischief Reef is reclaimed, we will have a problem. If they (China) reclaim it, they will threaten all our islands,” Catapang said.
The military also expressed concerns over China’s construction of artificial islets in Kennan (Chigua) and Mabini (Johnson South) Reefs. China is also making progress in its island building projects in Burgos (Gaven), Calderon (Cuarteron), Zamora (Subi) and Kagitingan (Fiery Cross) Reefs.
“As soon as the Mischief Reef is reclaimed and all the reclamation is finished, then the next move of the Chinese might be a difficult or a different one. They might propagate the area with lots of ships,” Catapang said.
“That will really militarize the area and create tensions,” he added.
China has also maintained its presence in Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal, an area located just 124 nautical miles off Zambales
Local fishermen can no longer enter what used to be their traditional fishing area. The Chinese have been preventing the Filipinos from fishing in the areas since 2012 after a brief standoff between Chinese surveillance vessels and a Philippine Navy ship. The Chinese vessels prevented the Philippine Navy from arresting Chinese poachers, allowing the latter to leave with their illegal harvest of endangered marine species from the shoal.
“In the future, we have to help our fishermen go back to their former fishing grounds,” Catapang said.
“I think the Coast Guard will have to escort them because if we use the gray ship it will unnecessarily provoke the other side,” he added, referring to naval ships.
“We call on China to stop the reclamation activities and to be mindful of its responsibilities as a claimant state and an important member of the international community,” Catapang said.
“We have compelling reasons to raise our voice to tell the whole world the adverse effects of China’s aggressiveness that has created tensions not only among the countries who have overlapping claims in the area, but also among the countries around the world who are using the international sea lanes in the West Philippine Sea for trade and commerce,” he added.
China’s relentless acts of aggression should be enough reason for the Palace to convene the National Security Council, Sen. Francis Escudero said yesterday.
“I think it might indeed be best to convene the NSC in order to bring everybody in the loop, given that this is an issue facing our country and people regardless of political affiliation,” Escudero said.
“Except to ratify treaties and confirm the appointment of ambassadors and other officials in the foreign service, the Senate, much less Congress, has a limited role in foreign policy determination and foreign relations,” he said.
He said he remains confident of support from allies, especially the US, in ensuring that China would not take more serious actions to assert its claims in the region.
“The United States, together with our regional partners in the ASEAN as well as the international community, will definitely play an important role in keeping China at bay, tempering its bullying tactics and resolving this matter peacefully,” Escudero said.
Anak Pawis party-list Rep. Fernando Hicap, for his part, urged President Aquino to immediately order a shutdown of Chinese mining operations as well as revocation of power generation concessions granted to Chinese firms to demonstrate the Philippines’ seriousness in protecting its sovereignty.
“The mineral resources that China is extracting from our country serve as raw materials for ships, weapons, aircraft and others, which would be eventually used against us, hence, we are being fried in our own fat,” Hicap said in a statement.
He said 26 Chinese mining corporations have been allowed to extract gold, iron ore, nickel, copper, manganese, lead, zinc, chromate and cobalt in the country.
Major Chinese mining operations are located in Zambales such as the Wei-Wei Group’s $100-million nickel processing plant in Masinloc town, and Jiangxi Rare Earth and Rare Metals Tungsten Group Co. Ltd. with a $150-million nickel exploration and cobalt processing plant.
The state-owned Jiangxi is mining for nickel, he said.
The Philippines is China’s No. 1 source of nickel ore, with Indonesia a close second. It has been reported that nickel super-alloys are a critical component in advanced jet engines and are used in the engines of fifth generation jet fighters, he said.
“Thus, we challenge Aquino to order the termination of mining operations of China as they plunder our natural resources and trample on our national sovereignty,” Hicap said.
The lawmaker also lambasted the Aquino government’s allowing the State Grid of China to own 40 percent of the National Grid Corp. of the Philippines.With Alexis Romero, Christina Mendez, Paolo Romero