MANILA, Philippines – The Philippines is seeking to “maximize” the benefits of the US-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) during the 2+2 meeting in Washington next week even as Philippine and Chinese vessels remain locked in a standoff at Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal.
The Philippines will seek US assistance “in general” in order to achieve a minimum credible defense posture.
Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario said yesterday the issue in Panatag Shoal and the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea) will be raised in the discussions with Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin on maritime security during the April 30 meeting with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta.
“We will certainly be discussing the freedom of navigation, unimpeded commerce and the West Philippine Sea. So it will come up under that topic,” Del Rosario told a news conference.
Del Rosario said all countries have an interest in what is happening in Panatag and the standoff is a manifestation of a greater threat to freedom of navigation and unimpeded commerce in the region.
“We are going to the United States in order to be able to maximize the benefits to be derived out of this Mutual Defense Treaty,” Del Rosario said.
The trip to Washington comes amid a warning by China not to “internationalize” the Panatag Shoal standoff as this would “complicate and magnify the situation.”
Del Rosario explained the Philippines is not looking to maximize benefits for a specific circumstance such as the standoff, pointing out the idea of achieving a minimum credible defense posture is something that Manila should try to do and “it is something that we have neglected to do over the years and I think this is a good time for us to do it.”
When asked if the Philippines wants US help in the standoff, Del Rosario declared “in general.”
“I think we would want all nations, including the United States, to make a judgment as to what is happening there and what the implications are to their own country,” he said.
Department of National Defense (DND) spokesman Peter Galvez said Gazmin would lead other senior defense officials in the US meeting.
He said Gazmin would be accompanied by DND Undersecretary for Legal and Legislative Affairs and Strategic Concerns Pio Batino, DND Assistant Secretary for Strategic Assessment Raymund Quilop, Navy chief Vice Admiral Alexander Pama and Air Force chief Lt. Gen. Lauro de la Cruz.
Galvez said the dialogue would provide Philippine and US officials the opportunity to reaffirm the two countries’ alliance and to explore new partnerships.
“The dialogue will allow them to explore other areas of cooperation,” he said.
The meeting may also dwell on topics related to economy, trade, politics and development.
Galvez said regional issues would also be discussed but was careful not to relate the dialogue to the Panatag Shoal standoff, now on its 17th day.
“There are many other issues within the region,” he said, adding freedom of navigation would also be discussed.
Galvez, nevertheless, reiterated the Philippines would continue to support all efforts to resolve the issue peacefully.
“We are doing everything towards a peaceful solution,” he said.
China violating the agreement
The Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) on Monday downplayed China’s warning to the Philippines not to involve the US in the standoff over Panatag Shoal by taking up the dispute during the 2+2 meeting between Philippine officials and their US counterparts next week.
Del Rosario said the US has taken a very constructive role and maintained the issue should be solved peacefully in accordance with international law, particularly the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).
Washington supports a multilateral resolution of the dispute and adherence to the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC).
“The Chinese are now in violation of the DOC when they are preventing us from enforcing our laws within our exclusive economic zone (EEZ),” Del Rosario said.
The DOC came out in November 2002 with the agreement that all claimant parties over uninhabited reefs in the region should conduct consultations and implement peaceful processes of dispute settlement based on equality and mutual respect.
Del Rosario, however, is reluctant to formally ask the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to take a stand on the dispute between the Philippines and China.
“The statement that I just recently made that we think China is in violation of the DOC is a statement we are making and ASEAN should be paying attention to that,” Del Rosario said.
“ASEAN has succeeded in the past in solving disputes or in bringing people together. I cannot tell the chairman of ASEAN what to do. That is really up to him as to what he wants to do with this information.
“All nations that have an interest in keeping freedom of navigation and unimpeded commerce in the West Philippine Sea should be watching carefully as to what is happening here because if we take a good look, it appears to us that China wants to establish the rules… Obviously there is a negative implication for everyone, not just the Philippines,” he said.
Del Rosario stressed many nations and his ASEAN counterparts have relayed their sentiments on the standoff but he declined to identify them.
“They say that they are following it very closely and they sympathize with what is happening,” he said.
Del Rosario rejected a possible withdrawal of Philippine and Chinese ships in Panatag at the same time.
“There was no agreement. It was not even suggested. The position that we are taking is that it is our exclusive economic zone (so) why should we withdraw?” he said.
It is seen as “vital for the US to continue supporting the Philippines as a strong Philippine position in the South China Sea is the best way to ensure peace and prevent Chinese adventurism.”
While the US takes no stance on territorial claims, the 1951 MDT is explicitly clear that any attack on Philippine armed forces, public vessels or aircraft in the Pacific will be deemed “dangerous to (America’s) own peace and safety” and obliges the US to “act to meet the common danger,” a position reaffirmed by then Ambassador Thomas Hubbard in 1999, he said.
Del Rosario said the Philippines and the US recognize the urgency to honor mutual obligations to the MDT as the Philippines is facing challenges to its national security and territorial integrity in the West Philippine Sea.
During her visit to Manila last November, Clinton reaffirmed Washington’s commitment under the MDT and commitment to work together on other issues of mutual interest.
The Senate, on the other hand, will conduct a hearing today on the various issues affecting the country’s claims in the West Philippine Sea, including the dispute with China over Panatag Shoal.
Sen. Loren Legarda, chair of the Senate committee on foreign relations, said the hearing would primarily deal with the bills filed regarding maritime security measures and the archipelagic sea lanes.
She added the ongoing dispute between China and the Philippines over the shoal would also be taken up during the hearing.
“We will tackle maritime security issues and provide an academic and intellectual exchange of views on maritime issues,” Legarda said.
She said that the Panatag Shoal dispute with China would also be discussed as a matter related to maritime security.
In the advisory provided by the committee, it noted the legal and political repercussions arising from the standoff between China and the Philippines were brought about by their opposing claims over the West Philippine Sea. – With Alexis Romero, Marvin Sy – By Pia Lee-Brago (Philstar News Service, www.philstar.com)