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Philippines, China to hold direct talks on South China Sea

China has invited officials of the Department of Foreign Affairs for a visit to start discussions on a bilateral consultation mechanism on the South China Sea. Taiwan's Ministry of Defense via AP

MANILA, Philippines -  The Philippines and China will hold direct talks on their maritime dispute in May, Filipino officials said yesterday, as President Duterte seeks stronger economic ties with Beijing.

China has invited officials of the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) for a visit to start discussions on a bilateral consultation mechanism on the South China Sea, the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs said.

The DFA yesterday confirmed China is proposing to hold and host the bilateral consultation meeting with the Philippines in May.

“This is a new proposal, a bilateral consultation mechanism specifically on the South China Sea,” foreign affairs spokesman Charles Jose said.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying said the Philippines and China agreed during the 20th round of Sino-Philippine diplomatic consultation last January to establish a bilateral mechanism on the South China Sea issue.

The two foreign ministries will act as coordinators to discuss issues of mutual concern and promote maritime cooperation and security. 

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“The Chinese side has invited competent officials of the Philippine foreign ministry to visit China in May for the first meeting of this mechanism,” Hua said in a press conference in Beijing.

“The two sides are having friendly consultations on the specifics of relevant matters,” she said. 

Hua said Beijing is willing to further strengthen communication and dialogue with Manila to properly manage differences, enhance maritime cooperation and create a favorable atmosphere for practical cooperation between the two sides and the healthy and steady growth of Sino-Philippine relations.

Last year, a United Nations-backed international tribunal rejected Beijing’s claims to most of the South China Sea, including disputed areas close to the coasts of its neighbors.

But Duterte, elected last year, has played down that ruling and pushed for rapprochement with China as he seeks billions of dollars in trade and investment from it.

DFA’s Jose said both sides are looking at May for the first meeting.

“There was the agreement of bilateral consultation mechanism on the South China Sea and China offered to host the initial meeting. This May, both sides will discuss the specific dates and the agenda,” Jose said.

He noted the purpose of the bilateral consultation mechanism is to provide a platform to discuss South China Sea issues.

“We have no agreement yet on the substantive agenda as well as the level of the meeting. All of these are yet to be discussed,” he said.

The Philippines sent last week a note verbale to China to seek clarification on its plans to build the first permanent structure on Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal.

The top official in Sansha City that administers China’s island claims since 2012 was quoted by the official Hainan Daily as saying that preparations were underway to build an environmental monitoring station at Panatag Shoal.

Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre II said the Philippines was preparing to formally protest China’s plan to install a radar station at Panatag in violation of the UN tribunal ruling declaring the shoal a common fishing ground outside any country’s jurisdiction.

He said the course of action was in accordance with Supreme Court Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio’s suggestion that a strong formal protest against Beijing be filed with the Permanent Court of Arbitration based in The Hague.

In September, China insisted the situation in Panatag Shoal had not changed and maintained the presence of a number of coast guard vessels was for law enforcement patrols.

Beijing denied there was dredging or building activities conducted in the atoll.

The Philippine government released surveillance pictures of Chinese coast guard ships and barges at a disputed shoal in the South China Sea.

Under threat

Security officials also pointed out two of the nine islands occupied by the Philippines in the Spratlys archipelago are now under direct threat from China’s ongoing militarization of their occupied areas in the region.

These two military outposts are in Pag-Asa Island and the Ayungin Shoal outpost, where Filipino soldiers are currently stationed aboard a grounded ship BRP Sierra Madre.

“These two areas are very close to the now Chinese highly militarized artificial islands out of Zamora (Subi) Reef and Panganiban (Mischief) Reef,” a senior security official said.

The official said the highly militarized Zamora and Panganiban Reefs could choke Pag-Asa and Ayungin Shoal.

Zamora Reef is located 14 nautical miles from Pag-Asa Island, Palawan’s fifth class municipality, which is also home to a contingent of Filipino soldiers.

Ayungin Shoal, on the other hand, is located 22 nautical miles from the Chinese-built artificial island in Panganiban Reef.

The Washington-based think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) said

China has already put up three radar/senior arrays, two hangars, a mobile missile shelter and four point defenses in their occupied areas.

The CSIS’s Asian Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI) reported China has completed early this month the construction of hangars that can accommodate 24 combat aircraft. The artificial island has a 3,000-meter runway and safe harbor.

“Construction teams were putting the finishing touches on five larger hangars. A finished radar tower stands in the middle of the reef and a trio of large towers have been constructed on the southwestern corner,” the AMTI said.

AMTI also reported recent monitoring on the placement of a radar dome on the ground next to one of the towers, indicating this construction is similar to what China has built at Kagitingan (Johnson South) Reef.

Retractable roofs are also being installed on the recently built missile shelters at Panganiban Reef, AMTI reported.

Meanwhile, the Department of National Defense (DND) is working out a deal with Japan for the transfer of spare parts needed by the Philippine Air Force to keep its fleet of UH-1H combat and utility helicopters up in the air.

Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said talks are now underway with Japan’s Minister of Defense Acquisitions, Technology and Logistics Agency (ATLA) regarding the Huey spare parts transfer to PAF.

Japan used to be a big user of UH-1H helicopters and has huge spare parts inventory for the Vietnam-vintage rotary aircraft.

Lorenzana made this disclosure following last Monday’s transfer of two of the five TC-90 surveillance aircraft that the Japanese government has leased to the Philippine government to bolster the Navy’s air maritime and sovereignty monitoring capabilities.

The Navy will be using the two aircraft provided by Japan to patrol the country’s maritime domain in the South China Sea and Benham Rise in the eastern seaboard facing the Pacific Ocean.  – With   Jaime Laude

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