Armed Forces chief Gen. Gregorio Catapang released what he said were satellite photos of recent Chinese construction over seven reefs and shoals in the Spratly archipelago of the South China Sea.
“We have compelling reasons to raise our voice to tell the whole world the adverse effects of China’s aggressiveness,” Catapang told reporters, describing the reclamation and construction activities as “massive.”
Catapang said this was causing concern “not only because it would deter freedom of navigation, but also due to its possibility of military purposes”.
China claims sovereignty over most of the resource-rich and strategically important sea, including areas close to other Asian nations, using vague demarcation lines that first appeared on Chinese maps in the 1940s.
The Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan have overlapping claims.
China has expanded its presence in disputed parts of the sea in recent years by embarking on giant reclamation work on reefs and islets, turning some into islands capable of hosting military aircraft landing strips.
President Benigno Aquino III said last week the world should fear China’s actions in the disputed sea, warning they could lead to military conflict.
In efforts to deter China, the militarily weak Philippines has encouraged longtime ally the United States to increase its presence on Filipino soil and coastal waters through expanded and more frequent war games.
This dovetails with US plans to re-build its military presence in the Philippines, where it had naval and air bases until the early 1990s.
The Balikatan war games are the biggest annual exercises between the allies, which signed a defense treaty in 1951 committing each to come to the others’ aid in the event of external aggression.
This year’s event involves about 12,000 troops, double last year’s number, and officials from both sides made unsubtle references to the South China Sea in opening ceremony speeches at military headquarters in Manila.
“I am sure that this Balikatan exercise will... likewise zero in on enhancing our combined capacity to undertake humanitarian assistance and disaster response as well as in dealing with maritime security challenges,” Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin said.
US Ambassador to the Philippines Philip Goldberg offered reassuring comments to the Philippines.
“We make no pretense that we are helping the Philippines as it builds a minimal credible defense and protects its maritime security,” Goldberg said.
“Let us be clear: the US is committed to its alliance and in the case of the Philippines, our oldest in the region, that commitment is, as President (Barack) Obama has said, is ironclad,” Goldberg added.
“At the same time, the US will defend the important principles of freedom of navigation in the air and the sea and the peaceful resolution of disputes through legal, diplomatic and peaceful means.”
The term “freedom of navigation” is loaded in the context of the South China Sea, which hosts roughly 40 percent of all the world’s shipping trade.
The United States has repeatedly expressed concern about the territorial rivalries threatening “freedom of navigation”, which angers China as it insists it will always allow ships to sail freely.
China also believes US complaints on the issue are a way for the superpower, which has no territorial claims in the sea, to become involved in the power struggle.
The war games, which last for 10 days, will be held from various military bases around the Philippines.
On Tuesday, marines will conduct beach landing exercises from a naval base facing the South China Sea just 220 kilometers from a Philippine-claimed shoal that China has controlled since 2012.
The is year’s Balikatan will also includes 70 Australian defense force personnel, Philippine officials said at the opening.
South Korea, Japan, Thailand, Indonesia, Laos, East Timor and Vietnam also sent observers, they said.
The Palace said Monday that the military continues to patrol areas under dispute.
Communications Secretary Herminio Coloma said these patrols were aimed at increasing the country’s “maritime domain awareness.”
He also confirmed Monday afternoon reports that Filipino fishermen were harassed in the Bajo de Masinloc or Scarborough Shoal but could not say how many fishermen were involved.
Coloma said the Coast Guard has sent its report to the Foreign Affairs and National Defense departments.
He said the government is working to improve the Navy and the Coast Guard’s capacity to patrol the disputed waters and protect Filipino fishermen.
In a briefing in Camp Aguinaldo, Catapang said the country’s Mutual Defense Treaty with the United States could be used to help modernize the Armed Forces.
He said the annual Balikatan exercises under the treaty allow military personnel on both sides to share interoperability skills and techniques for territorial defense and anti-terrorism operations.
He declined to say what types of military equipment that Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario said the Philippines is seeking from the United States.
Catapang spoke at length about Chinese reclamation activities, noting that satellite maps showed that China was building airfields in the Kalayaan Island Group that could be used for long-range patrol operations.
“Now they are reclaiming Subi reef which is very proximate on Pagasa Island where we’ve there local government unit of KIG. This will challenge our Pagasa. They are also expanding construction on Mischief Reef which is very near our Ayungin Shoal. This will challenge Ayungin. They’re inviting friction which we’ve always been avoiding because we renounce war as a national policy,” Catapang said.
He added that Filipino troops stationed on the grounded Navy vessel the BRP Sierra Madre in Ayungin are now under threat by the Chinese Navy.
“Our Ayungin troops are safe as of this time. But for how long with the rate China has been doing reclamations? China is militarizing the area,” Catapang said.
Senator Francis Escudero on Monday asked the President to immediately convene the National Security Council to map out plans in the face of China’s aggression in the West Philippine Sea.
“It might indeed be best to convene the NSC in order to bring everybody in the loop given that this is an issue facing our country and people regardless of political affiliation,” he said.
The NSC is the principal advisory body of the President on the proper coordination and integration of plans and policies affecting national security.
Also on Monday, the leftist League of Filipino Students said the US military will not help the Philippines counter China’s reclamation activities despite theEnhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement and the ongoing Balikatan military exercises.
“Modernizing the AFP and training them to defend our sovereignty are nothing but lies and cover-ups to the US’ main agenda of bolstering its power in the Asia-Pacific,” said LFS national spokesperson Charisse Banez during a protest rally in front of the US embassy in Manila.
“Even the new military equipment requested by the military for maritime patrolling will be under the control of the US and not of the Philippines,” she added. – With Macon Ramos-Araneta, AFP
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