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Galvez, Austin hit China’s deployment in West Philippine Sea

Michael Punongbayan - The Philippine Star
Galvez, Austin hit Chinaâs deployment in West Philippine Sea
A soldier walks on the deck of the USS America docked at Pier 15 in Manila yesterday. The America is the fourth US warship to be named after the United States of America.
Ernie Peñaredondo

MANILA, Philippines — The defense chiefs of the Philippines and the United States have again sounded the alarm over the escalating provocative activities of China in the South China Sea and the West Philippine Sea, including the deployment of a warship and more coast guard and militia vessels.

In a telephone conversation on Monday, Defense Secretary Carlito Galvez and his US counterpart Lloyd Austin III discussed initiatives aimed at strengthening the US-Philippine alliance as well as developments in the South China Sea and West Philippine Sea where Chinese vessels have been swarming around islets and land features within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone.

The US Department of Defense, in a readout of the phone conversation released yesterday, said Austin also spoke with Galvez about the recent groundbreaking for a $24-million runway rehabilitation project at Basa Air Base in Pampanga, which is one of the approved projects under the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA).

During the conversation, both defense chiefs “noted with particular concern the PRC’s massing of more than 40 vessels – including a PLA Navy ship – around Thitu (Pagasa) Island earlier this month within the feature’s 12-nautical mile territorial sea.”

“The swarming of vessels falls on the heels of a dangerous incident last month, in which the PRC (People’s Republic of China) Coast Guard directed a military-grade laser against a Philippine vessel operating lawfully around Second Thomas (Ayungin) Shoal, temporarily blinding some of the crew,” the readout said.

Austin underscored the US’s unwavering security commitment to the Philippines and reiterated that the Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) extends to Philippine armed forces, aircraft and public vessels, including those of its Coast Guard, anywhere in the South China Sea.

He and Galvez condemned what they referred to as China’s gray-zone activities “which interfere with the livelihoods of local Philippine communities and the rights of other claimant states that seek to operate lawfully in the South China Sea consistent with the 2016 Arbitral Tribunal ruling.”

In their conversation, the two officials welcomed upcoming operational engagements between their countries’ armed forces including next month’s Balikatan Exercises, said to be the largest iteration of the joint drill with more than 17,000 participating troops.

They also discussed plans to conduct combined maritime activities in the South China Sea and agreed to review the full range of US-Philippine maritime cooperation during the upcoming 2+2 Ministerial Dialogue.

The readout said Austin and Galvez likewise talked about forthcoming US support to contain and mitigate the ecological damage from an oil spill off the coast of Mindoro Oriental.

Meanwhile, former foreign affairs chief Albert del Rosario said the government should consider an operational lease of defense assets as a cost-efficient means of building a credible defense posture for the country.

In a statement, Del Rosario said the Philippines has long relied on “excess defense articles” which, while still useful, still need reconditioning and are costly to maintain.

“On Operational Leases, we are respectfully making this recommendation to our current leadership as such program may allow us to obtain newer defense equipment at lesser cost and with faster delivery time,” Del Rosario said. – Pia Lee-Brago

WEST PHILIPPINE SEA

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