US, PHL start combat drills amid massive China reclamations (Business Mirror (Philippines))

MORE than 11,500 American and Filipino military personnel launched one of their largest annual combat-readiness exercises on Monday amid growing alarm over massive land reclamations by China in disputed West Philippine Sea (South China Sea) territories.

Philippine military officials said the Balikatan (or shoulder-to-shoulder) maneuvers, which involve more than 90 aircraft and ships, were not directed at China. But the venue of some of the war games in waters facing the disputed region and a focus on territorial defense appear to link the exercises to the long-simmering conflict.

Malacanang on Monday affirmed it is banking, among others, on the US’s rebalancing and pivot of forces in the region to effectively help check China’s aggressive reclamation and encroachment activities in the West Philippine Sea.

Communications Secretary Herminio B. Coloma Jr. cited concerns raised by Washington officials over recent developments in brewing territorial conflicts in the region, particularly the Philippines and Vietnam, among other Asian countries sharing borders with China.

The secretary pointed out that the Obama administration was also quick to address fast-changing situations in the region.

Coloma noted that no less than US President Barrack Obama aired apprehension over the reports.

Coloma confirmed that an undeterred President Aquino is also expected to prod fellow leaders at the upcoming Asean Summit in Malaysia to facilitate the adoption of a binding Code of Conduct covering countries with conflicting territorial claims.

At a media briefing, Coloma confirmed reports that the Philippines and Vietnam are working out a strategic partnership to counter Chinese aggression in their territories, but he added that the details are still being worked out.

The details of the proposed strategic partnership are still being defined and worked out by the two countries. So, that is the current status, Coloma told Palace reporters.

Shortly before overseeing the start of the military exercises, Philippine military chief Gen. Gregorio Pio Catapang Jr. held a separate news conference to release surveillance photos showing Chinese reclamations in eight previously submerged reefs in the disputed Spratly Islands, saying Beijing’s actions increase the risk of an accidental confrontation.

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, Catapang said.

Once completed, the artificial islands could be transformed into offshore military bases with airstrips and maritime patrol hubs that could threaten the freedom of navigation in that section of the South China Sea, with busy oil and commercial cargo lanes, he said.

Catapang said some of the reclamation projects were several kilometers (miles) from a Philippine-occupied island and a reef, raising the possibility that Chinese military patrols could cut off Manila’s access, along with that of Filipino fishermen, to those areas.

Philippine government agencies were meeting to determine how to respond to the situation, Catapang said, adding the country wants a peaceful resolution based on international laws.

Chinese officials have defended the land reclamations by saying it is Beijing’s territory, adding that the reclamations were for public- service use and to support fishermen.

But the Philippine military has said the massive scale of the reclamations and the emergence of runway-like facilities raise the possibility they could be for military use to reinforce China’s extensive territorial claims.

The chain of Spratly Islands, reefs and atolls where most of the Chinese land reclamations have been detected, has long been contested by China, the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia, Vietnam and Brunei Darussalam. Aside from possible oil and natural-gas resources, the vast region also straddles busy sea lanes and teems with rich fishing grounds.

Catapang admitted on Monday that China’s improvement of Mischief Reef has permanently altered the security landscape in the West Philippine Sea, especially once Beijing completes the construction of the airfield in the artificial reef.

Mischief is only one of the reefs that China currently occupies and improves at fast pace in the disputed territory. It included Kagitingan, Mabini, Chigua, Cuarteron, Burgos, Subi and Gaven Reefs.

Catapang said once the airstrip becomes operational, then China can project power deep into the country’s territory in the West Philippine Sea, which is now the cause of serious concerns for top officials.

We have to prepare for that scenario, and we are, we are closely morning the development in the area. But we have plans, we have plans¦we have contingencies if the situation happens in the area, he said.

The top military chief showed military reporters the current state of China’s ongoing construction activities in the Mischief Reef, which he said was very compelling for the Philippines to raise its voice and 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 WPS for trade and commerce.

Catapang said that Mischief’s improvement altered the country’s security landscape in the south, more so that it also affects access to the other islets that the country claims, including Ayungin Shoal.

We feel we are in a very difficult situation now because they are reclaiming the Mischief Reef. So if they reclaim the Mischief Reef, we will be cut off. We have a series of islands going down south, going up north and it will challenge the Ayungin shoal, he said.

He also raised the possibility of a direct confrontation between Chinese and Filipino soldiers who would be guarding two different posts but are near with each other.

The chairman of the Senate Committee on Finance, Chiz Escudero, urged the government to immediately convene the National Security Council (NSC) to map out plans in the face of China’s aggression over the West Philippine Sea.

Escudero said the government must push through with the arbitration process of the territorial dispute, and this must be done in coherence with all key players, starting with the government.

The Philippines has a pending case before the Permanent Arbitral Tribunal in The Hague. It has asked the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea to define the limits of China’s nine-dash line, which intrudes into the country’s exclusive economic zone. The decision is hoped to be handed early next year.

In House Resolution 2031, Party-list Reps. Neri Colmenares and Carlos Isagani Zarate of Bayan Muna urged the leadership of House of Representatives to use its international parliamentary networks to condemn China’s aggression.

It will not be difficult to get the support of parliaments and their individual members because our exercise of sovereignty is based in international conventions and practices. We may not win through military might but certainly we are strong in the legal, moral and diplomatic arenas, they said.