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Sunday, December 10, 2023

Joint WPS patrols

The AFP is well within its mandate in asserting our sovereignty over our EEZ

Don’t expect big warships of the United States, Australia or Japan sailing alongside our Navy and Coast Guard vessels in regular patrols in the West Philippine Sea anytime soon.

That’s because the government, particularly the Department of National Defense and the Armed Forces of the Philippines, drawing guidance from no less than the President himself as the architect of foreign policy, must first carefully evaluate the proposals for joint patrols in the disputed sealane.

It’s in the West Philippine Sea where we have our Exclusive Economic Zone, according to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

We cannot be rash or impulsive on an issue that requires careful consideration of its possible implications on our bilateral relations with our close neighbor.

The message delivered by Vice Admiral Carlos Alberto, Commander of the AFP Western Command (WESCOM) in a recent media forum is clear: “We will first examine offers from various countries…Our objective is to establish a rules-based international order in the West Philippine Sea.

“Our consistent complaint is that our neighbor isn’t compliant with international law. So, our engagement with anyone who offers help, or shares our goal to establish this order, is being studied. We’re carefully considering all offers.”

The Navy officer explained that while no decision has been made about joint patrols, the AFP welcomes the support other countries have for our position: “That’s the essential part; their willingness to assist. Whether we accept their assistance remains undetermined, as no guidelines are in place.”

The WESCOM commander clarified he had not received any directive to do a joint patrol with any nation, as patrols currently being done in the West Philippine Sea are unilateral, conducted in collaboration with the Philippine Coast Guard and the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR), not with foreign countries.

Joint patrols in the West Philippine Sea with allied countries are welcome.

In fact, the recent agreement to elevate bilateral ties to a “strategic partnership” signed by President Marcos Jr. and Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese contains this clause: “We will plan bilateral joint patrols in the South China Sea…to support regional peace and stability.”

If this agreement yields a concrete plan for our Navy and Coast Guard to be joined by Australian naval vessels in joint patrols in the WPS, could this possibly lead to fewer or no more incidents of harassment and intimidation of our naval vessels by the Chinese Coast Guard and Chinese maritime militia?

We cannot predict how Beijing is likely to react to the possibility of joint patrols in the WPS that they also claim as their territory in the so-called 10-dash line outlined in their latest map of the Southeast Asian region.

Perhaps they will think twice about harassing or intimidating joint patrols of US-Australian, Japanese and Philippine vessels in the WPS if and when these come to pass.

What is clear at this point is we should continue to assert our claim over our EEZ in the West Philippine Sea despite incessant Chinese bullying of our naval assets and fishermen.

In the same media forum, Vice Admiral Carlos revealed massive illegal harvesting of corals in the area has taken place based on reports of underwater surveys by Philippine Navy divers.

He said while authorities successfully conducted a maritime law enforcement operation in early July, which temporarily drove away around 50 Chinese militia vessels engaged in a swarming activity, the Chinese resumed large-scale swarming activities last August.

Although the AFP is not asserting that Chinese vessels are harvesting corals, the Navy officer said there are indications that strongly suggest our next-door neighbor may be involved.

The Chinese vessels in our EEZ range in number from 300 to 400 at any one time, according to Carlos.

This indicates brazen moves by Beijing to intimidate and harass our naval vessels conducting routine patrols to support defense of our national sovereignty and territorial integrity in the West Philippine Sea.

The Vice Admiral emphasized the challenges of maintaining a constant presence in the area amid adverse weather conditions and resource limitations.

“We’d like to maintain 100 percent (presence), 365 days a year. But because of the weather, limited resources…our troops have to go back to port to refuel, to take some rest,” he told media.

The AFP is well within its mandate in asserting our sovereignty over our EEZ.

The AFP Western Command intends to bolster its presence in the West Philippine Sea, including deploying additional assets and personnel.

After all, only the Philippines has the rightful claim to the resources within our EEZ, and as far as the Western Command is concerned, it is their duty to defend our sovereignty in the area and ensure that resources there are enjoyed by all Filipinos, not by foreigners.


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