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Panatag Shoal problem: US is still our best bet

Despite the edgy state of relations between the Philippines and the United States – with the President telling the US off for commenting about his war against illegal drugs and other past developments that have made the situation rather tense – a large majority of Filipinos believe the US is still our best bet and definitely more trustworthy than China.

This was the tenor of the emails we received from readers who were reacting to the statement of President Duterte prior to his departure for Myanmar that the Philippines cannot do anything to stop China’s plan to build a monitoring station in Panatag Shoal (Scarborough Shoal). Many also dispute the President’s assertion that even the US has not been able to stop China, pointing to the recent statement of Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana that it was the US which prevented China from carrying out its plan in June last year to commence reclamation activities in Panatag Shoal.

Six nations – namely the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, China, Taiwan and Vietnam – have competing territorial claims over several areas in the South China Sea. However, China is claiming almost 90 percent of the South China Sea, and in the last decade, it has increasingly asserted control through reclamation activities and the construction of man-made islands, with landing fields, forward military bases and other structures.

In the past few years, China has also increased its military spending to double digits (though it slightly decreased its budget this year by 7.1 percent), and modernizing its naval capabilities. China’s aircraft carrier Liaoning participated in a live fire drill for the first time last year, and remarkable progress is also being made with the second aircraft carrier (to be called “Shangdong,” according to sources) projected for commissioning by 2019.

China’s growing assertiveness over the disputed maritime territories is driving tension in the Asia Pacific region and causing deep concern across the globe since an estimated $5.3 trillion worth of trade pass through the disputed territories. Obviously, maintaining freedom of navigation and ensuring the free-flow of trade is a major issue – which is why it is not surprising the US has been conducting more freedom of navigation operations (FONOPS) with the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson patrolling the South China Sea.

Observers also noted the “muscle-flexing” display of US military might, complete with stealth fighter jets and three attack submarines that were recently deployed in the Western Pacific, with one also entering the South China Sea, according to intelligence sources. For the first time since the cold war, the US also tested four submarine-launched ballistic missiles during simulated exercises in California.

US President Donald Trump is increasing the budget for military spending by 10 percent – sending a clear message to the rest of the world that he is prepared to “give America’s armed forces the resources they need to achieve full and total military preparedness to meet any and all global challenges,” Trump declared, describing the US military as a force for peace and justice.

The fact is, a lot of developments are happening in the Asia Pacific region which indicate America’s seriousness in ensuring security and maintaining the balance of power. At the Andersen Air Force Base in Guam, B-52 bombers as well as the B-2 and B-1 have been deployed. In Japan, the new fifth generationF-35B Lightning fighters were deployed in Iwakuni Air Base – no doubt prompted by North Korea’s continued belligerence over its nuclear program.

Interestingly, Republican Senator Marco Rubio of Florida is proposing a bill that would sanction any Chinese company that would engage in “illegitimate activities” in the South China Sea and East China Sea – with support from Democratic Senator Ben Cardin, which indicates bipartisan support for the proposed bill.

The bill specified several companies – among them state-owned oil company China National Offshore Oil Corp. – that should be monitored for their activities and sanctioned if warranted. Rubio is known for his strong resistance to China’s increasing aggression in the South China Sea, and this proposed legislation is clearly meant to tell China the US is aware of its plans in the disputed region and will not allow the free flow of commerce to be curtailed.

Other nations are also vigilantly watching the situation. Japan is planning to send its biggest warship – the Izumo – through a three-month navigational tour of the South China Sea starting this May, with port calls to Singapore, Indonesia, the Philippines and Sri Lanka, after which it will join the Malabar joint naval exercises with India and the US in July, sources disclosed.

France is also reportedly sending one of its Mistral carriers to the South China Sea and will join Japan and the US for joint amphibious exercises in Tinian island in the Northern Marianas during the latter part of May. France has been very outspoken in urging European Union countries to conduct coordinated navy patrols in the South China Sea. During the Shangri-La dialogue in Singapore last year, French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian pointed out the critical need for protecting the seas as losing freedom of navigation in the South China Sea could lead to similar problems in the Mediterranean or the Arctic Ocean.

Now more than ever, the Philippines must not lose sight of the moral victory it obtained when the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague thumbed down China’s “historic rights” claims over disputed maritime territories in the South China Sea. While we may not match the military might of China, we have global support because we are on the right side – and the Philippines should take the strong position that “right is might.”

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Email: spybits08@gmail.com

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