THE West Philippine Sea (South China Sea) dispute is the top concern as regards the country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, according to the Cabinet’s security cluster.
The security cluster made the assessment as it unveiled the Duterte government’s National Security Policy during Wednesday’s pre-State of the Nation Address (SONA) conference in Pasay City.
“The dispute over the West Philippine Sea remains to be the foremost security challenge to the Philippines’ sovereignty and territorial integrity,” it said.
It said the Philippines “needs to address” the disputes concerning the country’s maritime borders “as they affect a complex range of national security concerns as well as threaten regional peace and stability.”
It also emphasized Manila’s victory in the United Nations (UN)-backed arbitral tribunal in The Hague, which ruled that the Philippines has exclusive sovereign rights over the West Philippine Sea. The tribunal invalidated China’s “nine-dash-line” claim in its ruling on July 12, 2016.
President Rodrigo Duterte prefers a non-confrontational stance in the West Philippine Sea dispute and has cultivated economic ties with China since assuming the presidency.
The security cluster said the Philippines would “tread with prudence” on the issue by “carefully” calibrating all diplomatic approaches in resolving the matter.
Diplomatic efforts would also avert costly consequences of any potential armed confrontation in the disputed waters, it said.
“The government is looking to begin the process of diplomatic negotiations with neighboring countries to delimit and define maritime borders and jurisdictions,” the cluster said.
“In this connection, the enactment of laws pertaining to national defense, maritime zones, archipelagic sea lanes and all other matters necessary for compliance with the country’s commitments and obligations under international law is urgent and imperative,” it added.
Troops sent to islands
Presenting the Duterte government’s national security strategy, National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon Jr. said the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) had deployed more troops within the Kalayaan Island Group (Spratlys), Tawi-Tawi and Batanes.
In Kalayaan, the military sent troops in the Philippine-occupied Pag-asa (Thitu) Island, Kota (Loaita) Island, Parola (Northeast Cay) Island, Likas (West York) Island, Patag (Flat) Island, Panata (Lankiam Cay) Island, Lawak (Nanshan) Island, Rizal (Commodore) Reef and Ayungin (Second Thomas) Shoal.
In Tawi-Tawi, military presence was “enhanced” in Mardanas and Panguan islands. This was also the case in the Batanes islands of Itbayat and Mavulis.
Esperon also said the military and the Department of National Defense (DND) had ordered naval surface patrols within Philippine territories, covering more than 180,000 nautical miles of the country’s maritime domain and more than 2,400 flying hours of maritime air patrol.
He did not specify which territory of the country was covered by maritime patrols.
“Further, the DND began rehabilitation of structures in islands [of Kalayaan]. The construction of the beaching ramp and repair of runway in Pag-asa Island are now ongoing,” Esperon added, citing the ongoing rehabilitation of the broken runway.
“The government continues to engage China relative to our concerns in the West Philippine Sea, through high-level visits and meetings, including the bilateral consultation mechanism,” he said.
Esperon also said monitoring systems of the government in the Philippines’ maritime domain had either detected or challenged 66,223 foreign and local vessels.
This was through the military’s operation and maintenance of the Maritime Research Information Center, Maritime Situation Awareness Centers and Littoral Observatory Stations.
“This resulted in the monitoring of more than 66,000 foreign and domestic vessels sighted,” Esperon said.
‘Ready for peace’
The Philippines is ready to work for peace with China, said Esperon.
“We are preparing for peace,” he said during the open forum of the pre-SONA conference.
He said the national security strategy, which will be published for the first time, contains information on the security efforts of the government.
“The national strategy aims to achieve the ends of national security strategy which is the protection and enhancement of the well-being of the Filipino people, the protection of the territories, of sovereignty, the institutions, as well as the core values of the Filipino people,” Esperon stressed.
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