President Aquino on Wednesday vowed that the Philippines “will not back down from any challenge” to its sovereignty amid a territorial dispute with China.
In a speech marking the 115th anniversary of Philippine independence from Spain, Aquino said the country had not claimed territory that clearly belonged to another nation, but only asked that “our territory, rights and dignity be respected.”
“Aggression does not run in our veins, but neither will we back down from any challenge,” the President told government workers, diplomats and supporters at Liwasang Bonifacio, where he led a flag-raising ceremony.
Aquino laid a wreath at the monument to Andres Bonifacio, the working-class leader of the secret society Katipunan that launched the Philippine Revolution against Spain in 1896.
The President vowed to safeguard the independence that the country gained at the cost of Filipino revolutionaries’ lives 115 years ago amid present-day threats to its sovereignty, but at the same time, challenged Filipinos to act now to protect their freedom.
Aquino did not mention China by name, but the two countries have a worsening territorial dispute in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea).
From early April to mid-June last year, Philippine and Chinese patrol vessels faced off with each other at Panatag Shoal (Scarborough Shoal), a rich fishing ground 230 kilometers west of Zambales province.
The Philippine vessels withdrew to ease tensions at the shoal, but the Chinese ships never left, roping off the entrance to the shoal’s vast fishing lagoon.
The Philippines brought the dispute to the United Nations in January for arbitration.
Last month, the Philippines protested the presence of a Chinese frigate, two patrol vessels and a fleet of fishing boats off Ayungin Shoal (Second Thomas Shoal), another rich fishing ground 196 km west of Palawan province, from which the country administers five islands in the Spratly archipelago.
Beijing did not respond to the Philippine protest, but withdrew the fishing boats, leaving the frigate and patrol vessels at the shoal.
The Philippines maintains a presence in the area with a rusty ship that flies the national flag and is manned by Marines.
Besides the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam and Taiwan claim parts of the West Philippine Sea against China’s claim to almost the entire waterway that is home to major sea-lanes through which a third of the globe’s cargo passes.
Aquino said the Philippines would always stand up for its rights but works with other nations to preserve peace and stability in the region.
“[W]e have always stood up for our rights as a country with its own sovereignty, as a nation that spilled its blood in the name of freedom, as a Philippines with its own flag, equal to all others,” Aquino said.
But while the country protects its rights and continues to “build consensus with all parties to promote calm and understanding,” Aquino said “we must also increase the capabilities of our Armed Forces.”
The President said that in the next five years, P75 billion would be spent to modernize the military.
The government is acquiring a second cutter from the United States next month to patrol its seas.
In a conciliatory tone, Aquino explained the country’s actions to assert its sovereignty over the disputed islands in the West Philippine Sea, including bringing the Panatag Shoal dispute to the United Nations for arbitration.
“We have no other desire than to take care of what is rightfully ours. We have never trampled upon the rights of others. We have not claimed or demanded territory that clearly belongs to another. We have neither condescended upon nor oppressed others. Harming others or sowing discord with other countries is not in our history,” he said.
Dialogue for peace
The Philippines, he said, has never espoused a policy of taking advantage of other countries, “but on the contrary, has always been open to holding a dialogue in a peaceful manner.”
“The only thing we have asked is that our territory, rights and dignity be respected, in the same way that we have respected the territory, rights and dignity of other peoples. We are doing this precisely because we know that this is the key to maintaining stability, and by doing so, to continue the journey toward widespread and lasting progress, not only in our country, but also in our region and in the whole world,” he said.
The President also urged Filipinos to act now to protect the country’s sovereignty because—as Jose Rizal, Andres Bonifacio and other Katipuneros had shown—only the people could liberate themselves.
“The time of revolt against the oppression of colonizers has come and gone: Rizal and Bonifacio, the Katipuneros and other Filipino heroes had already done their part. They did this firm in the knowledge that no one else was going to fight for our rights; no one else was going to work for the future of our country; no one else would push for our freedom—no one but we Filipinos. No one else,” he said.
Aquino called the crowd’s attention to Bonifacio’s statue behind him, which he said appeared to be posing a challenge to present-day Filipinos.
“It is clear what his statue represents: that it is an honor to risk one’s life for one’s country; that those who have contributed to our freedom can hold their heads high. At the same time, Bonifacio’s stern gaze seems to pose a challenge to all of us: Filipino, what have you done for your flag and for your fellowmen?” he said.
Aquino said Bonifacio himself spoke of the necessity of banding together to overcome challenges.
“It was Andres Bonifacio himself who said: ‘Reason teaches us that we must be of one will and one mind to gain the strength we need to search out the evil that reigns in our nation. This is the time for the light of truth to dawn; this is the time for us to show that we have our own sentiments, our own honor, our own shame and solidarity,” he said.
But now is the time to act to free the country from any kind of oppression, the President said.
“Let us not wait 300 years, or three decades, or even three years, before we resolve to come together and gain freedom from hunger, poverty or whatever threatens our sovereignty and security,” Aquino said.
“This is the time for our spirits, minds and voices to become one. This is the time for us to offer our time and our strength. This is the time for us to act as one nation, so that we can realize our collective aspirations for the Motherland,” he said.
“I know that we can do this because we have the blood of heroes, and if Rizal, or Bonifacio, or even Ninoy (the President’s father Benigno Aquino Jr.) or Cory (his mother, President Corazon Aquino) asks, ‘Filipino, what have you done for your flag and your countrymen?’ we will meet their gaze, unafraid, and say, ‘This is what I have done for my country: I have given my heart and soul to uplift my nation,’” he said.—With a report from AP