Don’t agitate China–Enrile
Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile on Sunday cautioned the Aquino administration against agitating China in the explosive Spratly Islands dispute by sending the country’s only warship beyond Philippine waters.
Enrile agreed with the deployment of the BRP Rajah Humabon to the Scarborough Shoal, but said the government should not go beyond this area.
“At least we’re showing that while we’re a tiny nation in terms of military capability, we’ve decided to defend our right. But it’s better not to do it because it might worsen the situation. If they call the posture, they can sink our destroyer with one torpedo, one missile,” he said over dzBB radio.
At the same time, Speaker Feliciano Belmonte Jr. announced that he was leading a House delegation on Monday to meet with Chinese lawmakers in Beijing as part of a backroom diplomacy effort to ease tensions.
Although Belmonte told reporters that the trip had been arranged a year ago, he said he would use the occasion to present the country’s viewpoint on the Spratlys and underline the sanctity of its territorial waters to his Chinese hosts.
Gen. Eduardo Oban, Armed Forces of the Philippines chief of staff, said on Sunday that the World War II vintage naval flagship would not go beyond the country’s 370-kilometer (200-nautical mile) exclusive economic zone.
Confined to PH zone
“We hope it will not reach that point,” Oban told reporters when asked if sending the flagship to the disputed area could stoke clashes.
“I am optimistic that whatever conflicts may arise there will be settled peacefully and diplomatically, although what I am saying is that we will have to (also) enforce maritime laws within our 200-nautical-mile (370-kilometer) zone.”
The Philippine destroyer was dispatched to patrol the waters off Zambales on Friday, a day after China sent the Haixun-31, a helicopter-equipped 3,000-ton maritime patrol ship, on a voyage that will see it passing through the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea).
The 1,300-ton Rajah Humabon, acquired in December 1978 and commissioned by the Philippine Navy in February 1980, is the Philippines’ only warship.
Enrile said that since the Rajah Humabon could no longer be recalled, the government should ensure that the vessel conducts its patrols within the country’s economic zone and not stray into disputed waters.
Otherwise, he said, the warship, which will not be covered by an Air Force aircraft, would come face to face with China’s submarine, missile gunboat and long-range missiles “capable of hitting any target.”
“That’s a symbolic act of the country to show that in our own way we will defend our rights. Let’s not go any farther because we have no capability to equalize the balance of forces,” Enrile said.
The deployment of Rajah Humabon came on the heels of exchanges between China and the Philippines over incursions by Chinese vessels into Philippine territory near the potentially oil-rich Spratlys group, which is also claimed by Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei.
Enrile said President Aquino should now convene the National Security Council to tackle the issue of Spratlys, stressing that “the one that should be speaking for the country is the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA).”
DFA should do the talking
The President’s spokespersons—Ramon Carandang, Edwin Lacierda and Abigail Valte—should defer to the DFA to articulate the country’s position on Spratlys, Enrile said.
“They should not be talking like that,” he said, referring to Carandang’s statement that the country has to defend its sovereignty. “They’re in effect locking the President in a [position]. Let the DFA do the talking.”
Enrile said the DFA should handle the political and international aspects of the problem, and the Department of National Defense, the military aspect.
Lessons of Sabah
Sen. Edgardo Angara called the dispatch of the vessel to Scarborough Shoal “pitiful” and pressed the government to instead form a team of international law experts to articulate the country’s position on Spratlys and avoid a repeat of the country’s loss of Sabah to Malaysia.
“Of course that helps. That’s our only available vessel. But in a sense, we’re sending a water basin (palanggana) against China’s modern destroyer, carrier,” he said on Sunday over dzBB. “It’s a pitiful sight.”
Scarborough Shoal lies about 220 km from Zambales, 350 km from Manila, and more than 800 km from Hong Kong.
“We should learn from the lessons of Sabah. When we went to negotiations we haven’t formulated our position. No expert studied and prepared for that,” Angara said, referring to the Philippine claim to the Malaysian state of Sabah in northern Borneo.
“We should form a legal team of policy experts, including international law experts, to study that and prepare to debate it.”
Sabah was incorporated into Malaysia in 1963. With reports from Gil C. Cabacungan Jr. and AFP
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