Friday, September 28, 2012

Phl also wants sea row settled peacefully

MANILA, Philippines - The Philippines is just as eager and determined as China to work for a peaceful and diplomatic solution to their territorial dispute in the West Philippine Sea and South China Sea, Malacañang said yesterday. “It’s certainly a welcome statement from (Chinese) Ambassador Ma Keqing that we all aspire for a peaceful resolution toward the concerns in the West Philippine Sea,” presidential spokesman Edwin Lacierda said. Ma on Tuesday voiced her government’s desire to pursue peace and openness, as China prepares for a once-in-a-decade leadership change. The Communist Party of China, in its 18th congress, is set to choose the country’s new leaders, with current Vice President Xi Jinping expected to replace Hu Jintao as president. “China will be all the more determined to go for peaceful development, follow the win-win strategy of opening up and implement the policy of good-neighborliness with neighboring countries,” Ma said on Tuesday during the embassy’s celebration of China’s 63rd National Day. In Washington, Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario underscored the need for a rules-based approach to resolving the Philippines’ territorial row with China. “Let’s make it clear: our foreign policy does not seek to isolate one country, nor even force the resolution of a dispute. Our core interest lies in being able to communicate to ensuring that the global security and economic system is based firmly on the rule of law,” Del Rosario told a group of US experts and senior policy makers at a conference on the Philippines sponsored by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington-based think tank. “We are firmly committed to helping build an international system that will be just and fair to all states, regardless of economic size or power,” he said. For the political track, Del Rosario said the Philippines wants the West Philippine Sea transformed into a Zone of Peace, Freedom, Friendship and Cooperation. “We want to establish an actionable framework to define, clarify and segregate in accordance with the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), the disputed and non-disputed areas of the West Philippine Sea,” he said. “This would pave the way for feasible cooperation between the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and China in the medium-term.” Ready to respond Del Rosario stressed, however, that the Aquino administration is ready to respond if Beijing continues to violate Philippine sovereignty by maintaining Chinese ships at Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal. “We don’t know what that response will be just yet,” he said. In reply to a query on what the Philippines wanted China to do in the West Philippine Sea, Del Rosario said Beijing should abide by its agreement with Manila to pull out its vessels from the area, something which the Filipinos have done but which the Chinese refuse to do. If China wants to normalize relations with the Philippines it should pull out of Panatag Shoal, referred to in world maps as Scarborough Shoal, he said during a panel discussion. In his speech at the conference, Del Rosario said while the West Philippine Sea issue did not constitute the sum total of Manila’s relations with Beijing, “we are at a very trying period in our relations and we will not hesitate to speak out and protect our legitimate national interest.” Tensions over Panatag Shoal began in April when Chinese maritime surveillance ships barred the Philippine Navy from arresting Chinese fishermen alleged by Manila to be engaged in illegal fishing and harvesting of endangered marine species in the area. The shoal is 124 nautical miles from Zambales province and is well within the Philippines’ 200 nautical miles exclusive economic zone (EEZ) and continental shelf. China insists it has sovereignty over the area. In June the Philippines pulled back its vessels from Panatag in the face of an incoming typhoon and said China had agreed to do the same. But China merely reduced the number of its vessels and has even roped off the area to keep Filipino fishermen at bay. Del Rosario said he traveled to Beijing last month for talks with his Chinese counterpart on the issue, adding this “shows high-level contact is being maintained.” He did not touch on the back-channel efforts of Sen. Antonio Trillanes IV with China over the Panatag dispute without his knowledge and which at one point prompted him to think of quitting his post. Participants to the conference and panel discussions that followed, in addition to Del Rosario, included Justice Secretary Leila de Lima and Finance Secretary Cesar Purisima. The US side was represented by Kurt Campbell, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs; Mark Lippert, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Asian and Pacific Security Affairs; and former US ambassador to the Philippines Thomas Hubbard. In the panel discussions, Del Rosario said the Philippines was working with the US on fleshing out the concept of a minimum credible defense force. “We are working out with them how to make this credible defense force work and to what extent increased rotational presence of US forces can be of assistance to the Philippines while we are in the process of building our deterrence capability,” he said. Campbell said while there was need to recognize the shared history of both countries, it was essential to build a new relationship for the future. “At the heart of this is raising the stakes and prospects for rapid growth we are seeing in the Philippines. We want that to be sustained. This would give us the greatest potential for what would be the basis of a new relationship and it will be based on business,” he said. Campbell gave a shout out to the Aquino administration, saying “we could not have a stronger government with which to work with in Manila.” “We need to do everything possible to underscore our interest in not only having the Aquino government succeed and thrive but (for) the bilateral relationship to develop and diversify during this critical period,” he said. Campbell said the US would do all it can to step up its game as a commercial and economic player in the Philippines. Lippert, for his part, said both sides were in consultation on how Manila’s credible defense force would look like, though there would probably be more emphasis on the air force and the navy. “This is a work in progress,” he said. He emphasized the US was not looking to turn the clock back. “We are not looking for permanent bases in the Philippines.” Marine brigade As Chinese intrusions in the West Philippine Sea continue, a Marine brigade is set to arrive in Palawan today to beef up coastal defenses. Western Command (Wescom) spokesman Lt. Col. Niel Estrella said a naval transport vessel carrying the 3rd Marine Brigade, led by Col. Andrie Costales, is expected to arrive in Puerto Princesa City. “The Marines are just returning to their old home base,” Estrella said. The Marine Brigade was previously assigned in Sulu. With an entire Marine brigade already in Palawan, the military is eyeing the setting up of a military reservation in the western section of Puerto Princesa City overlooking the West Philippine Sea. Wescom commander Lt. Gen. Juancho Sabban pointed out that the combat-ready Marines from Sulu would not be deployed in the hotly contested Spratlys region. “Pag-asa Island has nothing to do with this,” Sabban said, referring to the islands, reefs, and atolls in the Spratlys currently occupied by Filipino troops. “While we are still developing our air and naval fighting capabilities, we deem it necessary to also start upgrading our land-based territorial defense in that particular area,” one senior official said. In Zamboanga City, Rear Admiral Armando Guzman, commander of Naval Forces Western Mindanao, said the recent Chinese navy live fire exercise was just part of psychological warfare but that the Philippines should not let down its guard. “It was psychological warfare and personally, I believed we have to assert our sovereignty. We are not threatened. Our government is addressing it through political and peaceful approach,” Guzman said on the sidelines of the celebration of the 16th anniversary of his command at Naval Station Romulo Espaldon. He said that even if the Navy’s attention is focused on the West Philippine Sea, his command still has the capability and the means to address security threats in Mindanao. “We don’t feel that our area is left out in terms of upgrade and assets. We still have more assets,” Guzman said. Meanwhile, Japanese firms in China are considering moving to the Philippines in the aftermath of violent protests in China against Japan’s reasserting its claim over Senkaku (Diaoyu) Island in East China Sea, Bases Conversion Development Authority (BCDA) president and chief executive officer Arnel Casanova said. He said the Japanese investors have signified their intention to relocate their businesses to some of the Philippines’ special economic zones like Poro Point in La Union and Clark in Pampanga. “I don’t want to name them (foreign firms) at this time,” Casanova said. With Jaime Laude, Rainier Allan Ronda, Roel Pareño - By Delon Porcalla and Jose Katigbak