Phl NovaSAR to watch over WPS

COMMONSENSE - Marichu A. Villanueva (The Philippine Star) - April 23, 2021 - 12:00am

Avoiding a bloody “shooting war” is neither surrender nor accepting defeat, especially over our country’s sovereignty claims in the disputed South China Sea (SCS), but which we call as our West Philippine Sea (WPS). A retired four-star general and who once served as Armed Forces chief of staff, Secretary Hermogenes Esperon Jr. of the National Security Council (NSC) asserted this.

Esperon reiterated President Rodrigo Duterte strictly adheres to an “independent foreign policy” as the country’s chief foreign policy architect amid insistence for the Philippines to bring into the picture the United States as treaty ally in the Mutual Defense Treaty to resolve by force our maritime territorial dispute with China. Esperon, however, argued there are other SCS claimant countries that we also have to deal with. As National Security Adviser (NSA), Esperon bolstered the latest policy declarations of President Duterte on the WPS as his Commander-in-chief.

Esperon made these assertions with such conviction in our Kapihan sa Manila Bay Zoom Webinar last Wednesday after President Duterte made the blistering response on domestic agitations for the Philippines to take tougher actions, short of a “shooting war” with the military might of China. The latest incident of which was Chinese ships swarming, specifically in our maritime territory around the Julian Reef. Located within the 200-mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ), over 200 Chinese vessels anchored side by side in the waters of Julian Felipe Reef a few weeks ago.

Esperon merely amplified what President Duterte told the Filipinos during his “talk to the people” address last Monday night at the end of his weekly meeting at Malacañang with the Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF-MEID). In his usual candor, the President cited he has been upfront with the retired military generals now serving him in the Cabinet. The President brought them along in Beijing when he met Chinese President Xi Jinping during their first tete-a-tete.

“Noon ko pa sinabi ‘yan, iyong pagkatapos na nag-usap kami ni President Xi Jinping na sinabi ko na: ‘I will get my oil also.’ Sabi niya (Xi): ‘Please don’t. We just leave it that way in the meantime,’ he said,” President Duterte quoted his Chinese counterpart during their four-eyes meeting.

“Nandiyan ‘yong mga Cabinet members. General Año was there, the Chief of Staff ko pa noon. Dinala ko kayo para may mga living witnesses ako na may ginawa. Pati ‘yong mga military na nagdududa wala akong ginawa, minukha ko talaga. Nandiyan kayo, General Año, General Esperon, si Delfin. Sinabi ko na: ‘One day I will drill my oil there and mine whatever is ours,” the President continued his narratives.

“Si ES, nandiyan sila lahat – sinabi ko. Ngayon kung habulan lang ng tang’…maghabulan lang sila diyan, sige bigyan ko sila ng limang Coast Guard. Habol-habolan lang sila diyan, maglaro sila kung sinong mas mabilis,” the President responded to his critics’ calls.

The ES is Executive Secretary Salvador Medialdea. Also alluded to by the President were Department of National Defense (DND) Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, Interior and Local Government Secretary Eduardo Año, and Esperon.

Esperon presented the map of the disputed areas at the SCS showing the Philippines has nine of these islands, islets, atolls, shoals, reefs and rocks. China reclaimed islands and constructed airstrips and other military installations in seven of them closest to Palawan. Vietnam, however, has the biggest number of 21 occupied areas while Malaysia has five detachments; Brunei has two; and Taiwan has one. Esperon remained confident though to the strong commitments for peaceful negotiations of the Code of Conduct at the SCS among these feuding claimant countries.

For almost three decades now, this Code of Conduct at the SCS has been a work in progress.

Administration critics have been pressing President Duterte to compel Beijing to abide by The Hague Arbitral ruling in June 2016 that rejected their historical “9-dash” claims. In response to the latest agitations, President Duterte declared as his red line to resort to sending “the gray ships” of the Philippine Navy if and when China starts to illegally extract – except fishing – mineral and other precious resources “within the bowels” of the WPS.

“When the President says we can only take the WPS with force, that’s correct. We have to use force, and if we do that, it will be a shooting war. That’s what he says, it will be bloody and I’m sure be very difficult to win a war,” Esperon conceded but fervently prays for a peaceful resolution of our WPS claims.

Esperon noted with obvious relief though the number of Chinese ships is down to 10 vessels still anchored within the WPS maritime territory as of latest checks done by National Task Force on the West Philippine Sea (NTF-WPS). But not after our Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) headed by Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. “fired” off a series of strongly-worded diplomatic protests sent to Beijing upon the recommendations of the NTF-WPS. The NTF-WPS is chaired no less by President Duterte and Esperon as the vice chairman.

The last note verbale that Locsin sent to Beijing was to summon ambassador Huang Xilian to answer for the faux pas of the official spokesman of Chinese Embassy in Manila for publicly assailing Lorenzana as “unprofessional” in the latter’s pronouncements on the Julian Reef situation.

Fortunately, these diplomatic tacks averted the renewed word war on the SCS. Or was it the subsequent deployment of American carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt and its battle ships in the area? Whatever made Beijing to voluntarily withdraw some of their huge ships out of Julian Reef, we could only speculate.

For now, Esperon points to civilian approach of the NTF-WPS by increased “sovereign patrols” of our Coast Guard, naval and air assets, including drones. Coming soon is more technology-based surveillance of “granular satellite imaging” from NovaSAR to be deployed in the outer space as “eyes” 24/7 to watch over our Philippine territories at the SCS.

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