MANILA, Philippines — The country’s maritime issue with China is best handled by the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) rather than by the military, the newly-installed commander of the country’s 148,000-strong military said.
Lt. Gen. Noel Clement, Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) chief, said that any monitored intrusions of foreign ships inside the country’s maritime domain will be passed on to the DFA for appropriate diplomatic actions.
“We are not here to be confrontational. We are not going to engage any country in particular,” Clement said, adding that the important thing as far as violations are concerned, is the military’s ability to report and address these in a diplomatic manner.
The Palawan-based Western Command (Wescom), which has operational and security jurisdiction over the country’s western front, is directly tasked to protect and defend the country’s maritime domain in the Kalayaan Island Group.
Small contingents of marines, sailors and airmen are currently on forward deployment in nine Phlippine-occupied areas in the disputed region, which is also being claimed in whole or in part by China, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei.
All but Brunei has forces deployed in the Spratly islands, with China gaining ground among the four other claimant states in laying its claim after sucessfully establishing a number of highly-fortified air and naval bases in its man-made islands in the region.
Clement said if there are violations such as intrusions, the information will be forwarded to the DFA for diplomatic action, saying it would be a big step for the AFP to go to the extent of employing its forces just to address these security concerns.
“We will stick to a more diplomatic (approach) in addressing this issue,” Clement said.
When pressed further if the AFP, under his leadership, will simply allow the continued presence of China inside the country’s maritime waters particularly in the West Philippine Sea, Clement only said that these Chinese ships will definitely be out there forever.
On Friday, Washington-based think tank Center For Strategic and International Studies, through a brief released by the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI), said that China is now sending larger but lightly armed coast guard vessels to patrol around Ayungin Shoal, Luconia shoals in the Spratlys and Panatag Shoal up north.
More heavily armed vessels like the Zhaoduan and Zhaojun class, both of which have 76 mm cannons, have also patrolled the region but are more frequently seen since last year in larger deployments such as those currently occurring off the Vietnamese coast or around Pag-asa Island.
These large Chinese coast guard ships, numbering up to 14, have been broadcasting automatic identification system (AIS) signals while patrolling around these three features. Other Chinese vessels also deployed in the region but doing patrols in other areas have their AIS turned off.
“The vessels patrolling Luconia, Ayungin and Panatag shoals most often belong to the Shucha 11 and Zhaoi classes. These vessels are largely unarmed, except for water cannons and small arms, but are larger than the law enforcement or most navy ships of their neighbors,” AMTI said.
Last May, a huge Chinese vessel tried to block Wescom’s resupply operations which involved three Philippine Navy vessels at Ayungin Shoal.
These huge Chinese vessels, AMTI added, make them ideal for operations that might involve threatening collisions and, if necessary, shouldering other vessels to drive them away.
“The patrol pattern highlights an important Chinese Coast Guard objective in the South China Sea – to create a routine, highly-visible Chinese presence at key sites over which Beijing claims sovereignty but does not have any permament facilities,” AMTI said.