‘We will vigorously defend what is ours’

Alexis Romero - The Philippine Star
�We will vigorously defend what is ours�
President Marcos and Vice President Sara Duterte attend the Philippine Military Academy commencement exercise for Bagong Sinag Class of 2024, which was topped by Cadet 1st Class Jeneth Elumba, at Fort del Pilar in Baguio City yesterday. Top photo shows cadets throwing their ‘shakos,’ or military hats, into the air at the end of the graduation rites.
Krizjohn Rosales

MANILA, Philippines — The country will “vigorously defend what is ours,” President Marcos told graduating military cadets yesterday in a thinly veiled reference to mounting tensions with China, which has become more brazen in staking claims in Philippine waters.

“What we are facing now are a blatant disregard of internationally accepted principles and deployment of weapons of mass distraction by parties who seek to drive a wedge between a united citizenry,” Marcos said in a speech during the graduation of the Philippine Military Academy (PMA) “Bagong Sinag” class of 2024.

His remarks came on the heels of Beijing’s announcement that it has empowered its coast guard to detain for 60 days without trial anyone or any vessel found trespassing in what it considers its territorial waters. China’s territorial claim, rebuffed by the international community, covers almost the entire South China Sea, a conduit for $3 trillion in annual ship-borne trade. Beijing intends to begin enforcing its “maritime administrative law” on June 15.

On several occasions in March and April, the China coast guard – using powerful water cannons – tried to prevent Filipino vessels from delivering food and provisions to fishermen in Panatag Shoal and to a military outpost on BRP Sierra Madre in Ayungin Shoal.

Marcos said that while Filipinos are now feeling the progress and peace that the government has tirelessly worked on for years, new challenges have emerged.

“But people are not fooled. They can see through such schemes. So, these attempts to divert our attention, dissipate our energy better spent on making the country should not draw us away from the urgent tasks ahead,” he added, without mentioning China.

Marcos, who as president is also the commander-in-chief of the armed forces, said the urgent tasks at hand include keeping people safe in their homes, securing the territory, and maintaining the stability of democracy.

“Against intruders who have been disrespecting our territorial integrity, we will vigorously defend what is ours, but our conduct (is) always guided by law and (by) our responsibility as a rules-abiding member of the community of nations,” he said.

The Philippine Coast Guard said China’s rule should be ignored, and that nobody can bar Filipinos from sailing to the West Philippine Sea, the area of the South China Sea inside the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone and continental shelf. It dismissed Beijing’s announcement as “psychological operations.”

China made the announcement on May 15, the same day dozens of Filipino fishing boats and small vessels assembled by the Atin Ito Coalition began their trip to Panatag Shoal to deliver food and fuel to fishermen.

In his speech, Marcos congratulated the fresh PMA graduates and reminded them of the key role they would play as soldiers.

“This academy has not only trained you to be proficient in warfare, but to be the champions of the welfare of our people.  Because soldiering now is no longer limited to defending territories, but to improve the lives of the people who live there,” the Chief Executive said.

“This is what you have signed up for in your military career, for which you have given up the simplicity and the safety of civilian life. Discipline and honor code are your non-negotiables,” he added.

Marcos noted that while the cadets had to endure physical separation from their loved ones, their sacrifices would not be in vain.

“Your gallantry will not be squandered by those who benefit from it.  More so if they see that you have adhered to the following tenets of your calling and the demands of the public trust that you hold,” Marcos said.

“You will abide by these words, even in the most trying of circumstances. When rations grow thin, morale is low, let these words continue to sustain you.”

The Bagong Sinag class is composed of 278 graduates, 54 of whom were females.

Escalating tension

In an interview with dwIZ, Senate President Juan Miguel Zubiri said China would only worsen the situation in the region if it makes good its threat to apprehend “trespassers” in the South China Sea.

“I am appealing to the Chinese government not to force that on us because it would only escalate the tension,” Zubiri said.

He reminded China that it is a signatory to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) that protects the freedom of navigation and overflight in the South China Sea.

“This means any fishing boat or cargo ship can pass through without the threat of being detained or captured by claimant countries. There should be freedom of navigation and free open access in the Indo-Pacific Region,” Zubiri said.

He stressed that arresting those onboard a Philippine Coast Guard or a Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources vessel is tantamount to arbitrary illegal detention, a serious offense in the Philippines.

“That is a unilateral illegal move under UNCLOS, an illegal act that would only fan the tension in the region,” the Senate leader said.

Sen. Jinggoy Estrada, for his part, asked China to adhere to a rules-based order, instead of resorting to acts of intimidation to assert its claim.

“We’re awaiting the pronouncement of the Department of Foreign Affairs if they have received any official document on this. Nonetheless, we have taken note of this matter,” said Estrada, who chairs the Senate national defense and security committee.

“While we respect China’s right to safeguard its territorial interests, we also emphasize the importance of adhering to international norms and agreements,” he added.

“The Philippines remains committed to upholding our rights and interests in the West Philippine Sea. We hope China will likewise respect the rights of other nations operating in these waters. We encourage all parties to exercise restraint and seek peaceful solutions to disputes,” Estrada said.

Speaker Martin Romualdez also lambasted China for issuing rules that could only inflame the situation in the region.

“China’s aggressive pronouncements are a blatant escalation of tensions in West Philippine Sea. These unilateral actions flagrantly violate international law and the established norms that guide the Philippines and other law-abiding nations with claims in the South China Sea,” he said in a statement.

He stressed that China must “act as a responsible member of the global community rather than imposing its own laws unilaterally and bullying other nations.”

“The House of the Filipino People will not tolerate any arrests of our citizens or fishermen within our own Exclusive Economic Zone. We will fiercely defend our sovereignty and ensure the safety and rights of our people,” he maintained. — Marc Jayson Cayabyab, Sheila Crisostomo

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