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Top brass mull upgrades in contested territories

PUERTO PRINCESA CITY, Philippines—Top military and defense officials sat down with local military commanders here on Monday to discuss the upgrading of military facilities in the face of reported Chinese incursions into Philippine-claimed territories in the South China Sea.

Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin and Armed Forces Chief of Staff Gen. Eduardo Oban Jr. conferred with leaders of the Western Command securing the country’s territorial claims on the Reed Bank and the Spratlys group of islands.

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“We are trying to upgrade our resources to be able to protect our maritime area. It’s not easy because we lack funding and so we have to prioritize,” Gazmin said following a closed-door meeting with Wescom chief Lt. Gen. Juancho Sabban.

Concrete actions

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Gazmin said they paid the visit to understand what needed to be prioritized—land, air or water facilities.

“We will come up with concrete actions,” he said.

Gazmin and Oban returned to Manila early in the afternoon. “Their instructions were for all our forces to be vigilant, to continue with the air and sea patrols in the area and to see to it that there should be continuous dialogues, said Defense Undersecretary Eduardo Batac in a later interview.

Gazmin assured the Wescom troops that the dilapidated airstrip on the Philippine-occupied Pag-asa Island in the Spratlys would be repaired since funds were now available, Batac said. The construction was delayed by the onset of the rainy season, he added.

2 fighter jets

The visit of the two officials was prompted by a Philippine Air Force’s (PAF) report that two fighter jets were spotted over Philippine-claimed Reed Bank in the South China Sea on May 11.

The PAF had said that it could not identify the intruding planes.

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Last March, two Chinese Navy gunboats reportedly “harassed” a government oil exploration vessel at Reed Bank.

Reed Bank is closer to the Palawan mainland than the Kalayaan Island Group in the Spratlys which are also being claimed by the Philippines.

Gazmin said that contrary to criticism that the government of no clear strategy on the Spratlys, Malacañang was pursuing dialogues as a means of thwarting the aggressive moves of China.

“In the first place, in terms of military resources, wala tayong ibubuga. (We have nothing to show). Our preference is to dialogue based on the objective that we avoid active confrontation. Besides, all of our actions (diplomatic protests) are recorded and recognized internationally. In due time, I am sure the international community will take cognizance of these issues,” he explained.

Asean involvement

Gazmin said the Philippines was pushing for the bigger involvement of Asean (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) in resolving the South China Sea issue.

“We want to speak with one voice as Asean,” Gazmin said.

He was reacting to criticism raised last week by Palawan Rep. Antonio Alvarez who decried the government’s “ad hoc” approach to the Spratlys.

“There should be a comprehensive solution, a road map to pursue,” Alvarez, in whose Palawan district the contested reefs are located, said.

The Spratlys, a reputedly oil-rich chain of islands and reefs, is claimed wholly or in part by the Philippines, China, Malaysia, Brunei, Vietnam and Taiwan. With a report from Dona Pazzibugan

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TAGS: Armed Forces of the Philippines, Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin, Gen. Eduardo Oban Jr., Kalayaan Island Group, Reed Bank, Spratlys group of islands
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