Concrete plans on West Philippine Sea issue sought from possible presidential bets

This April 13, 2021 photo released by the Philippine Coast Guard shows at least six Chinese vessels remain at Julian Felipe Reef in the West Philippine Sea.

MANILA, Philippines — Exactly a year before the 2022 elections, a lawmaker said those eyeing the presidency should go beyond general statements and offer a clear policy on dealing with the country's maritime dispute in the West Philippine Sea.

Filipinos will troop to polling stations on May 9, 2022 to elect a new leader who will succeed President Rodrigo Duterte, whose response to both Beijing's incursions in the waters and the COVID-19 pandemic has been widely criticized.

Rep. Ruffy Biazon (Muntinlupa) said possible contenders should have a more detailed plan of action, "since the repercussions to national security go beyond the six-year term of an administration."

“Motherhood statements don’t count for anything when literally the future of the next generation of Filipinos is at stake,” said Biazon, a senior vice chairperson of the House Committee on National Defense and Security, in a statement.

The remarks came in the wake of the supposed debate between the President and ex-Supreme Court Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio on the issue, only for Duterte to back out from what he himself initiated.

In 2016, then candidate Duterte vowed to ride a jet ski to Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal and plant the country's flag there. Years later, he said he only meant it as a joke.

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The president has since repeatedly played down incidents of the Chinese harassing of Filipino fishermen in the waters. It was also only in 2020 that he asserted the country's arbitral ruling against Beijing, and recently said it was just a "piece of paper" that he can throw away.

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Biazon said powerful countries such as China and the United States will put importance on the maritime issue in its foreign policy in the coming years.

“With China’s long term plan to dominate the region pitted against the Free and Open Indo-Pacific agenda of the US and it allies," he said, "the Philippines must determine how it will navigate the seeming turbulent geopolitical waters in the coming years under a new administration."

One thing to consider, Biazon added, is shifting the Armed Forces of the Philippines' focus to external defense. He said funding from internal security operations could be redirected for this.

"If we don't refocus... we will continue to be disadvantaged and abused," the lawmaker added, as he said AFP's patrols in the waters should continue.

The next general elections will prove to be more crucial for the country, as Filipinos will select an administration whose task is to lead the country out of the pandemic and on to recovery.

Philippine coronavirus cases are now at more than 1.09 million, with 18,269 dead. Daily cases are still at over 5,000 and hospitals remain mostly occupied.

The Commission on Elections has said that the 2022 polls will proceed amid the pandemic, as it eyes changes in campaigning and voting practices.

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