Philippines loses opportunity to improve capabilities in opting out of South China Sea drills â analyst
In this Oct. 17, 2019 photo, the Philippine Navy ship BRP Andres Bonifacio (PS 17) and the US Coast Guard Legend-class cutter USCGC Stratton (WMSL 752) steam in formation together during a photo exercise as part of Maritime Training Activity (MTA) Sama Sama 2019.
US Coast Guard/Petty Officer 1st Class Nathan Littlejohn
Philippines loses opportunity to improve capabilities in opting out of South China Sea drills — analyst
Patricia Lourdes Viray ( - August 5, 2020 - 12:59pm

MANILA, Philippines — Refusing to join maritime exercises with other countries in the South China Sea would be a loss of opportunity for the Philippine Navy to improve its capabilities, a maritime expert said Wednesday.

Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana earlier said President Rodrigo Duterte has a "standing order" for the navy not to participate in naval exercises in the South China except in national waters.

Lawyer Jay Batongbacal, director of the University of the Philippines Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea, said the joint maritime drills were supposed to improve the country's interoperability with allies and other navies in the region.

"These kinds of exercises allow the navy to continuously develop its capabilities to operate in this region," Batongbacal told ANC's "Matters of Fact".

Noting that the navy has been acquiring new assets, maritime exercises with other countries are needed to practice using the new equipment.

'Different signal'

While the Department of Foreign Affairs has been releasing strong statements on the Philippines' claim in the West Philippine Sea in recent months, Batongbacal said the latest declaration from the Department of National Defense sends a "different signal."

By choosing not to participate in joint naval exercises, the Philippines appears to be unwilling to "put its money where its mouth is" on external defense, according to the maritime law expert.

Lorenzana said Duterte's directive not to join maritime drills in the contested waterway was to avoid raising tensions in the region but Batongbacal stressed that having exercises with treaty allies, such as the United States, does not really create tension.

"I don't see how holding the exercises will raise tensions when there is transparency historically in the area of these exercises," Batongbacal said, adding that navies have usually informed civilians whenever they conduct such exercises in the South China Sea, including the West Philippine Sea.

"Withdrawing from exercises with other nations send that signal that we are even afraid to do it for fear of maybe being too sensitive for fear of other parties," he added.

Pressure from China?

Batongbacal also mentioned the possibility that the timing of the Duterte administration's decisions on the South China Sea, part of which is the West Philippine Sea, might be connected to China.

Since assuming office in 2016, Duterte has adopted a policy of appeasement on China to the point of setting aside the country's arbitral award on the South China Sea.

The maritime expert pointed out that China has been insisting control on the conduct of military exercises in the South China Sea.

In negotiations on the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea, Beijing previously proposed having the ability to "veto" potential military exercises between Southeast Asian nations and foreign powers outside the region.

"This kind of refusal seems to be connected with that and it's not a good signal to be sending... This indicates maybe you are not sovereign as you say you are because you are afraid of the reaction of another party to what you are doing," Batongbacal said.

Duterte's order for the navy not to participate in maritime exercises with other countries in the South China Sea, except within the 12 mile distance from Philippine shores, came a week after he said he cannot do anything against Beijing's excessive claims in the region.

"They (China) are in possession of the property, so what we can do? We have to go to war and I cannot afford it. Maybe some president can but we cannot. Inutil ako d'yan," Duterte said in his fifth State of the Nation Address.

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