Duterte wants to visit West Philippine Sea as civilian

Evelyn Macairan, Pia Lee-Brago, Alexis Romero - The Philippine Star
Duterte wants to visit West Philippine Sea as civilian
This March 22, 2021 aerial photo shows Chinese vessels still present in the Julian Felipe Reef in the West Philippine Sea, well within the Philippine exclusive economic zone and continental shelf.
Armed Forces of the Philippines

MANILA, Philippines — President Duterte yesterday expressed hope that he can go to the West Philippine Sea after stepping down from office, citing the need to assert “what is ours,” even as he reiterated that the Philippines cannot afford to fight with China over the maritime row.

Speaking during the commissioning of the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) ship BRP Melchora Aquino in Manila, Duterte said his desire to go to West Philippine Sea would not have any ramifications if he does so as a civilian.

“Someday, I could maybe ride with the Coast Guard to see. Even if I am already a civilian ... that you can invite me to ride with you... And I could maybe ride with you there in West Philippine Sea. It is a gamble,” he said.

“But you know, you have at one time in our national life that we have to assert … what is ours,” he added.

The President disclosed that he had clarified with Chinese President Xi Jinping that the Philippines “cannot give up sovereignty” over the waters in West Philippine Sea, including the exclusive economic zone (EEZ), which he described as “vital for our national life.”

Experts, however, have noted that under international law, the Philippines has sovereignty over its 12-nautical mile territorial sea, not in the 200-nautical mile EEZ. But the Philippines has sovereign rights in its EEZ, which permits the country to exclusively enjoy the marine resources in the area. The constitution also requires the state to protect the nation’s marine wealth in its archipelagic waters, territorial sea and EEZ, and “reserve its use and enjoyment exclusively to Filipino citizens.”

Food security, conflict

After citing the importance of the resource-rich EEZ, Duterte said the population is growing and the country needs to keep pace.

He also warned that the Philippines may face problems on food security because of the conflict between Ukraine and Russia.

“You know, even in food security in the coming years, we will have difficulties. And the longer that this ruckus in Europe between Russia and Ukraine continues, (prices) will really spiral. That’s what I’ve been warning the Filipinos about two months ago,” Duterte said.

“I said there is fighting over there. But the flow of oil will be disrupted,” he added.

Rich nations would be prioritized in terms of oil supply, according to the President.

“We’ll have to be very careful to navigate and maybe there are countries (that) will look kindly upon us to give us the fuel of the economy,” he said.

“Well, aside from the fact that there is really danger to the world if Russia decides to use nuclear arms, if they are pressed against the wall. And I hope Ukrainians will have the common sense to remain in the boundary because they are using the arms of the United States and of the West,” he added.

The outgoing Chief Executive underscored that an intrusion into another territory “would really put the entire population (of) this planet in jeopardy.”

“I am praying that this can be sorted out by just talking. There’s really no need to kill a human being,” he said.

Duterte explained that the consequence of a conflict was the reason that the Philippines prefers to address its dispute with China through negotiations.

He noted that the Philippines only sends civilian ships like coast guard vessels, not war ships, to West Philippine Sea.

“I’m glad that they have also adopted the same behavior. We continue to talk,” Duterte said.

“But we cannot afford (to fight) with China. We cannot win and we will lose and the population will suffer. The Filipino nation would be in a very tight situation, a quandary of how to go about, I said, navigating the geopolitical issues in Europe and here, Taiwan,” he added.

Duterte ended his speech by commissioning PCG ship BRP Melchora Aquino.

The vessel is the second of the two 97-meter multi-role response vessels (MRRV) made in Japan for the PCG.

The ship is named after Melchora Aquino, the Filipino heroine known as “Tandang Sora” and the “Mother of Katipunan.”

The vessel has a maximum speed of not less than 24 nautical miles per hour and endurance of not less than 4,000 nautical miles and can conduct sustained maritime patrols in the Philippines maritime jurisdictions.

PCG says yes

The PCG yesterday said it would allow Duterte to board one of their ships and bring him to West Philippine Sea, even after he retires on June 30.

PCG spokesman Commodore Armand Balilo said he does not see any problem if Duterte, even after he has ended his term as president, will join one of their ships going to the WPS, where there had been reported recent sightings of Chinese vessels.

“Of course, we would bring President Duterte to the WPS. I do not see any problem with that. That is allowed since he is a former statesman, a former president after June 30,” Balilo said, using the acronym of West Philippine Sea.

“We will accord him the proper honor as a former head of state, once he has retired. We would allow him to ride one of the ships heading to the WPS anytime he wants. We owe him so much,” he added.

In his speech, Duterte praised the PCG for its “excellent record” and that he was “very much impressed” with its performance.

“You have helped the government a lot in maintaining its independence and integrity as a republic. So bilib ako sa inyo,” he said.

BRP Melchora Aquino, skippered by Commander Patrick Babag, and its already commissioned sister ship BRP Teresa Magbanua are currently the biggest vessels of the PCG.

The two MRRVs were built under the Department of Transportation (DOTr) Maritime Safety Capability Improvement Project (MSCIP) Phase II, a Japanese-assisted project funded by the Official Development Assistance loan from the government of Japan through the Japan International Cooperation Agency.

They are modeled after the Japan Coast Guard (JCG) Kunigami-class vessel, which has a maximum speed of not less than 24 knots and an endurance of not less than 4,000 nautical miles.

While the BRP Melchora Aquino’s first mission assignment has yet to be discussed, it could be deployed to conduct maritime patrols in West Philippine Sea, Philippine Rise and even at southern part of Mindanao.

Shipyard to be modernized

Meanwhile, the Hanjin shipyard on a former US naval base in the Philippines acquired by a private American firm will be fully modernized and provide the Philippine Navy use of a naval base that will “improve access” to South China Sea, according to Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman.

Sherman, the US’ number-two diplomat, said the US welcomed the news Thursday that a US-based company acquired the former Hanjin shipyard, a strategic shipyard at the Subic Bay Freeport by South China Sea.

The deal with Cerberus Capital Management gives the Philippine Navy a naval base “with an ideal harbor for its rapidly expanding fleet facing West Philippine Sea.”

Although the amount of the deal was not disclosed, reports said the buyout was worth $300 million.

Assistant Secretary of Defense for Indo-Pacific security affairs Ely Ratner said the acquisition was an “important example of US-Philippine public-private partnership.”

Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. said the agreement with Cerberus was “the biggest public-private partnership in the 75-year history of Philippine-US relations.”

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