The government will boost its maritime patrols in the West Philippine Sea following President Rodrigo Duterte’s declaration that local ships won’t pull out from the disputed area, an official said Saturday.
National security adviser Secretary Hermogenes Esperon Jr., who concurrently serves as the chairperson of the government task force for the West Philippine Sea, noted that bigger groups have been deployed in the area.
“We have long positioned our forces there, but we are intensifying it now with the help of the Philippine Navy, the Philippine Coast Guard or the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources, and the Philippine National Police,” he said in a televised briefing.
Esperon vowed that government troops would protect the detachments of state forces in the disputed areas, adding that the military is “always ready” should unforeseen circumstances arise.
He also underscored the importance of the government’s intensified maritime patrols in the area, saying other countries also boost their presence in the area amid China’s aggressive posture.
In the South China Sea, he said Vietnam controls 21 islands and reefs, 14 of which are within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone. On the other hand, Malaysia has five, Taiwan has one, while China controls seven — most of which are artificial islands converted into military bases.
The Philippines, meanwhile occupies nine, including Pag-asa Island, the seat of the Kalayaan Island group.
“Even if we are combining the diplomatic actions, military action, informational, economic, legal or political, intelligence at financial, our military, the police, and the Coast Guard are always ready and are deployed there,” Esperon said.
Duterte, in his pre-recorded address aired Friday, said the government would not withdraw its two ships roving around Kalayaan Islands and Mischief Reef even if China orders him killed.
The President was quick to clarify that despite his declaration, he did not intend to quarrel with Beijing since the Philippines owes a huge debt of gratitude to the Chinese government over its donations and assistance amid the pandemic.
“I will not retreat. Kill me if you want to kill me. I will be here. This is where our friendship will end,” he said.
His latest pronouncement was the strongest yet since hundreds of Chinese ships swarmed the country’s territorial waters.
It also came days after the national task force flagged the presence of 287 Chinese maritime militia warships near the municipality of Kalayaan in Palawan.
Weeks ago, the task force also reported the presence of 220 ships at the Julian Felipe Reef, which escalated the tension between Manila and Beijing.
Four government agencies have since pooled their resources to strengthen the maritime patrols in the West Philippine Sea.
The Philippine Coast Guard, the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources, the Philippine National Police’s maritime group, and the Armed Forces of the Philippines joined forces to deploy regular patrols in a wider area of the Philippine territory.
The fishery bureau deployed its monitoring, control, and surveillance vessels and multi-mission offshore vessels to the waters off Kalayaan.
The police contributed its high-speed tactical watercraft, gun boats, and fast boats, while the military designated naval vessels and military aircraft to conduct sovereignty patrols on a rotational basis.
Meanwhile, Esperon shrugged off the newly-launched signature drive demanding the President’s withdrawal of his statements on the West Philippine Sea that were allegedly detrimental to the country’s interests.
Esperon said it is up to the public whether they would sign up on the petition since the initiative — launched by retired Supreme Court Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio through the Change.org platform — is covered by “freedom of expression.”
“If our countrymen want to agree with Justice Carpio, fine. Let’s see. It’s part of the freedom of expression,” he said.
However, Esperon noted that the public should be critical of Carpio’s motive, noting that the former magistrate launched a coalition seeking to form a single slate of opposition candidates that will challenge the President’s bets.
Carpio’s petition urged Duterte to retract his statement that the arbitral ruling in favor of the Philippines is a scrap of paper meant to be thrown in the wastebasket.
He also wanted the President to take back his statement that the Chinese fishermen can fish in the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone and that Beijing is in possession of the West Philippine Sea.
Carpio argued that Duterte’s remarks run contrary to the 1987 Constitution.
“These statements are contrary to the Constitution, waive our sovereign rights under the Arbitral Award and even concede to China possession of the West Philippine Sea when in fact China is not physically and legally in possession of the West Philippine Sea,” the former magistrate said.
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