Restore joint naval patrols to show resolve vs bully

GOTCHA - Jarius Bondoc (The Philippine Star) - April 7, 2021 - 12:00am

Restore joint patrols with allies. That is one of the Philippines’ options to defend its exclusive economic zone. President Duterte’s halt in 2016 of exercises with naval powers only abetted more Chinese sea incursions. Hundreds of Chinese maritime militia vessels are now blockading Julian Felipe Reef and poaching in other parts of the western EEZ. Joint sea drills will discourage intruding Chinese warships that escort the militia fleet.

Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana says China is bent on occupying Julian Felipe (Whitsun) Reef, 175 miles off Palawan. Philippine battle craft are constrained from confronting China’s civilian though militarized trawlers. Commander-in-Chief Duterte can authorize Lorenzana to restart joint patrols with allies. That will turn back the escalating sea encroachment by Chinese gray ships.

Duterte must be seen as resolute. If not, morale and discipline will wane in the Armed Forces of the Philippines. China will take the entire West Philippine Sea without a fight, as it intends, Sun Tzu-style.

Naval practices are a sovereign right under international law. It is like a homeowner readying to deter a thief. Defense is not an act of war but keeping the peace. It is every state leader’s duty.

Philippine security partners America, Japan and Australia used to involve joint patrols in the maritime exercises. Such patrols not only bolstered participants’ capabilities. Filipinos were also able to determine what military hard and software to acquire, and display defense resolve. For the allies the patrols were freedom-of-navigation operations. They had to resist Beijing’s illegal claim to the entire South China Sea as an internal lake. Through the SCS, that includes the EEZs of Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam, passes $5 trillion in annual world commerce.

Lorenzana disclosed last year he was “under orders” from Duterte to not join allied maritime patrols, except in 12-mile territorial waters. He said so in response to press queries about Duterte’s penultimate State of the Nation of being “inutile” against China aggression. Despite appeasing China since 2016 for $24 billion in loans and aid, Duterte has received only 0.5 percent. Critics rued that he reduced the AFP to shore patrol.

Beijing scoffs at Manila’s complaint against militia swarming of Julian Felipe Reef. To Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin’s protest, China’s embassy lied that fishers were only sheltering from (inexistent) storm. It also called Lorenzana names for telling the militia to leave. Beijing employs “wolf-warrior diplomacy” in capitals that it can bully.

China is also playing “victim.” It claims that its fishers have been going to Julian Felipe Reef for years and cannot be driven away. That’s the same line it used in occupying in 2012 Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal, 123 miles from Zambales.

From 220 vessels when first sighted March 7 at Julian Felipe, 44 militia trawlers remain. Ninety-two proceeded to McKennan (Hughes) and 84 to Burgos (Gaven) Reefs. All are in Pagkakaisa (Union) Bank, shallow waters within the Philippines’ 200-mile EEZ and 650 miles beyond China’s.

Dozens more Chinese vessels are poaching in Recto (Reed) Bank off Palawan. Also around Kalayaan Island Group, a municipality of Palawan. As if taunting Manila, three Chinese warships moored this week at Panganiban (Mischief) Reef, which China concreted into an air and navy base 120 miles from Palawan.

Without allies, the undermanned, under-equipped AFP can hardly patrol the West Philippine Sea. “Still our soldiers strive on, true to duty to protect our people and territory,” a general told The STAR. The AFP is modernizing and training as a “credible defense force.”

Social media chat groups of Philippine Military Academy batches are abuzz on what needs to be done, another star-rank officer said. Opined is the inability of the civilian Philippine Coast Guard to interdict the much larger Chinese poaching trawlers. Another is to use for air reconnaissance not just turbo-trainer planes but longer range light combat ones. Also faster, sturdier frigates for deeper waters.

“Nangangapa ang field commanders. They’re feeling their way around,” a retired general noted. “By doctrine they know what to do. But what if the higher-up hesitates or disapproves?” The retiree shuddered at the thought of breakdown of command and control due to irresoluteness.

Former foreign secretary Albert del Rosario sees joint patrols with America as the answer to China’s challenge. “Before stepping down as SFA we [met] twice with then-deputy US secretary of State Antony Blinken to seek joint patrols in the West Philippine Sea,” he recounts. “An agreement on joint patrols was approved, but this was shelved by President Duterte, fearing that China would be displeased.”

But “China’s duplicity and invasion of our waters remain unabated despite the efforts of President Duterte to appease China,” he notes. “With Antony Blinken as the incumbent Secretary of State, it may now be imperative for us to revisit joint patrols in the West Philippine Sea with our sole treaty ally, to confront the bullying tactics of China.”

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“Gotcha: An Exposé on the Philippine Government” is available as e-book and paperback. Get a free copy of “Chapter 1: Beijing’s Bullying and Duplicity”. Simply subscribe to my newsletter at: https://jariusbondoc.com/#subscribe. Book orders also accepted there.

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