PUERTO PRINCESA, Philippines—Know and protect your own backyard.
Newly retired Marine Lt. Gen. Juancho Sabban did just in his last three years in active military service as the straightforward, no-nonsense chief of the Armed Forces of the Philippines Western Command (Wescom) based in Palawan.
As WesCom commander from 2010 up to Monday, when he reached the mandatory age retirement of 56, Sabban had directed 14,000 security operations in his area of responsibility.
Sabban said the bulk of these missions comprised “sovereignty patrols” at the height of the country’s territorial dispute with China over the Philippines’ regime of islands in the Spratlys.
“(With) those 14,000, I still feel that they were not as much as we thought we should have exerted in the patrolling of our borders. Now we have another threat, the southern border. It (sovereignty patrol) increases as threats to national security arise,” he said, referring to the ongoing conflict in Sabah after the Sultanate of Sulu sent its ‘royal security forces’ to reclaim ownership over the North Borneo island.
In his speech at Monday’s turnover rites, AFP Chief of Staff Emmanuel Bautista cited Sabban’s strategy of combining “diplomatic, informational, military, economic, and socio political initiatives” in Palawan through partnerships with key local leaders.
The strategy resulted “in a shared concept of security that brings a quick and encompassing and coordinated response in the emerging security situation in the West Philippine Sea,” Bautista said.
Bautista also commended the Wescom for maintaining a “credible defense posture against the threats to our sovereign rights.”
Asked how he would explain to the public the concepts of national security and territorial defense as a civilian, Sabban said: “Simply that we should be aware of the extent of our backyard.”
Sabban noted that it used to be that “people were already in our backyard and nobody cared to ask them why they were there or to drive them out from our backyard.”
“This is important because like illegal settlers, the longer they stay there the bigger the problem that we will have to drive them away and eventually it might become legitimate for them to stay there,” Sabban said.
The Philippines lost Mischief Reef in the Spratlys to China in 1994, after the Asian superpower asserted its ownership over it. Mischief Reef is located some 130 miles from Palawan.
On Monday, China said it was sending its largest patrol ship, Yuzheng 312, to the West Philippine Sea to carry out a law enforcement mission.
This could well be the first test to Sabban’s successor, Marine Maj. Gen. Rustico Guerrero, who assumed the post as Wescom commander on Monday
A military official told reporters that Philippine authorities have yet to monitor Yuzheng 312 in the country’s vicinity.
The official said protocols were in place should the Chinese ship venture into the Philippine exclusive economic zone.
“There are rules of engagement that we follow. If we monitor that a foreign vessel enters our EEZ, we report it to the Defense Department which informs the Foreign Affairs Department,” said the official, who requested anonymity, as he was not authorized to speak to the media.
Sabban said that facing up to China was one of the biggest challenges he had as Wescom’s commander.
“With our internal security operations, we were always superior in force but in territorial defense operations, we are very much inferior. Lakas ng loob lang,” Sabban said.
It was Guerrero’s third time to take over a position that Sabban vacated. He had earlier replaced Sabban as chief of the Joint Task Force Comet that went after Abu Sayyaf bandits and as commandant of the Philippine Marine Corps.
Guerrero said he would work with the stakeholders in Palawan, known as the country’s last frontier for its rich wildlife and natural resources, to maintain its security and peace and development objectives.
Bautista presented Sabban, whom he called “Sir,” with the latter’s collection of medals earned from his exploits in the battlefield and civil military operations. Sabban was the last member of the Philippine Military Academy (PMA) Class ’78 to retire. Bautista belonged to PMA Class ’81.
Sabban was also known to have taken part in attempts to overthrow the first Aquino administration in the 1980s.