Lorenzana, US defense chief discuss VFA and West Philippine Sea
Lorenzana assured the public that the government is actively addressing the situation as almost 200 Chinese vessels, said to be manned by militias, have been docked in the reef since earlier this month.
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Lorenzana, US defense chief discuss VFA and West Philippine Sea

(Philstar.com) - April 11, 2021 - 2:47pm

MANILA, Philippines — Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana spoke with US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin III at a telephone conference Sunday to touch on issues in the West Philippine Sea, his spokesman said. 

To recall, a report released by US-based Simularity found that hundreds of Chinese vessels have been "mooring, arriving and departing" in Julian Felipe (Whitsun) Reef in the West Philippine Sea since December of last year. Latest reports show that Chinese vessels remain anchored in Philippine waters. 

"The two defense chiefs discussed the situation in the West Philippine Sea and recent developments in regional security. Both are looking forward to the conduct of Exercise Balikatan, which was canceled last year," defense department spokesperson Arsenio Andolong said in a statement.

Balikatan, an annual exercise, is made possible by the Visiting Forces agreement, which President Rodrigo Duterte ordered terminated in February 2020. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic and developments in the region, the termination process has been suspended twice since. 

Lorenzana, among other Cabinet secretaries and lawmakers, has already spoken out and demanded that Chinese ships vacate the area, though China's Embassy in Manila continues to claim that Juan Felipe Reef, where the ships were spotted, is part of its Nansha Islands.

President Rodrigo Duterte has said that he cannot do anything about China's presence in Philippine waters since doing so, he claimed, would mean going to war with the regional giant. 

Aside from expressing hope for a peaceful resolution, the chief executive has not yet commented on the issue itself — even after an ABS-CBN news crew reported being chased by Chinese missile boats in the area. 

An international tribunal ruled in 2016 that China's claim over a large part of the South China Sea — including the West Philippine Sea in the Philippine's Exclusive Economic Zone — has no basis in international law.

Beijing, which did not participate in the arbitration case filed by the Philippines in 2013,  continues to reject the arbitral ruling.

Earlier, Sen. Panfilo Lacson called for the establishment of strong diplomatic relations with other countries amid maritime tensions. 

"The fact that we are a militarily weak country that cannot match China's military power should compel us to resort to establishing stronger alliances not only with other Asia-Pacific neighbors like Australia and Japan and the other ASEAN countries, but our long-standing western allies like the US and Europe," he said earlier in April. 

"Only through a clear message that the presence of 'balance of power' in the West Philippine Sea can help us in this regard."

Visiting Forces Agreement

"Secretary Austin reiterated the importance of the VFA and hopes that it would be continued. Secretary Lorenzana committed to discuss the matter with the president as the final approval lies with him," the DND also said. 

The abrogation first came as a threat to the US government following the cancellation of Sen. Bato dela Rosa's visa.

The exchange between the two defense chiefs also comes after Balikatan exercise was canceled last year amid international travel restrictions during the onset of the coronavirus pandemic. 

The annual exercise between the Philippines and the US also involves participation from Australia.

Moderna vaccines 

According to Andolong, Lorenzana also sought the assistance of the United States "to expedite the delivery of the Moderna vaccines the country has ordered."

Austin said that he would "look into the issue and bring it to the attention of the office concerned." 

This comes after the Philippine government represented by vaccine czar Carlito Galvez Jr. secured in March 20 million of the coronavirus vaccines developed by US-based biotech company Moderna. 

— Franco Luna with a report from ONE News PH

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