Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, center, answers questions from reporters after attending a conference in Makati, south of Manila, Philippines on Thursday, Dec. 8, 2016. Lorenzana said it is highly unlikely the Philippines will allow the U.S. military to use the country as a springboard for its freedom of navigation patrols in the disputed South China Sea to avoid antagonizing China. AP Photo/Aaron Favila

US use of Philippines for sea patrols unlikely
(Associated Press) - December 9, 2016 - 12:00am

It is highly unlikely the government would allow the US military to use the Philippines as a springboard for freedom of navigation patrols in the disputed South China Sea to avoid antagonizing China.

Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said yesterday US ships and aircraft could use bases in Guam or Okinawa or fly from aircraft carriers to patrol the disputed waters.

Under President Duterte’s predecessor, Benigno Aquino III, some US aircraft and ships stopped in the Philippines on the way to patrolling the disputed waters to challenge China’s territorial claims.

Duterte, who took office in June, has taken steps to mend ties with China and became hostile toward the Obama administration, after it raised concerns over Duterte’s deadly crackdown on illegal drugs.

Asked if the Philippines would continue to host US ships and aircraft patrolling the disputed waters, Lorenzana said Duterte is unlikely to allow it to avoid any provocative actions that can escalate tensions in the South China Sea.

“It’s unlikely,” the defense secretary said. “We’ll avoid that for the meantime. Anyway, the US can fly over there coming from other bases.”

US officials did not immediately comment. The commander of US forces in the Pacific, Adm. Harry Harris, said last month that despite Duterte’s rhetoric, military cooperation with Manila has not changed.

Duterte has publicly threatened to scale back the Philippines’ military engagements with the US, including scuttling a plan to carry out joint patrols with the US Navy in the disputed waters, which he said China opposes.

Joint annual combat exercises have been reduced and will be redesigned to focus on disaster response and humanitarian missions. Among the maneuvers to be dropped starting next year are amphibious landing exercises and beach raids, aimed at enhancing the country’s territorial defense.

Duterte’s actions have become a hindrance to US efforts to reassert its presence in Asia, although the US military has vowed to continue patrolling one of the world’s busiest commercial waterways.

After Duterte met Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing in October, China allowed Filipinos to fish at the disputed Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal. China took control of the rich fishing area in 2012 after a tense standoff with Philippine government ships.

Philippine Coast Guard ships have also resumed patrols at the shoal.

Aside from the easing of tensions at Panatag, Chinese coast guard ships are no longer blocking Philippine resupply ships from Ayungin (Second Thomas) Shoal, farther south in the Spratlys, Lorenzana said.

US still cornerstone of Phl security

Despite the warming of relations between the Philippines and China and Russia, the Philippine-US alliance remains the cornerstone of the country’s security posture, the defense secretary said yesterday. 

Speaking before a Stratbase Albert del Rosario Institute for Strategic and International Studies-sponsored conference in Makati City, Lorenzana pointed out that adherence to the rule of law is the primary mechanism to ensure regional peace and stability and to manage differences. 

“Our alliance with the US remains to be a cornerstone of the Philippine security posture. In the Mutual Defense Board-Security Engagement Board (MDB-SEB) meeting last month, we agreed to conduct activities that will address current Philippine security concerns,” Lorenzana said.

In adhering to the rule of law, the Philippines, he said, has been consistent in its position that international law is the great equalizer between big and small states, as well as between major and small powers.

With the President’s anti-US pronouncements specifically directed at outgoing US President Barack Obama and former US ambassador Philip Goldberg, it has been widely perceived that the Philippines is now slowly cutting off relations with the US in favor of China and Russia. 

But the reinvigoration of the Philippines’ relations with China as well as other regional states to include Russia, Lorenzana said, should not be interpreted as if the Philippines is already cutting its ties with the US.

Relations between Philippines and the China were at their lowest after the Philippine government questioned before the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) China’s massive maritime and territorial claim to almost the entire South China Sea. – AP, Jaime Laude, Pia Lee-Brago

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