Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. is pushing for an amendment to the country's Mutual Defense Treaty with the United States to include attacks against civilian passenger vessels as a “trigger” for military assistance as the two countries are scheduled to begin their joint military exercises today (Monday).
“This will be different from previous Balikatan exercises because of the pandemic. Some portions of the exercises will be virtual but we also have minimal physical contact. There will also be actual field training exercises but not as big as those done in the previous years,” said Armed Forces chief of staff Lt. Gen. Cirilito Sobejana.
Sobejana said the joint military drills will last for two weeks and will 700 American and 1,100 Filipino soldiers.
On Sunday, US Defense chief Lloyd Austin III spoke over the phone with Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana and reaffirmed their "shared commitment to the US-Philippines alliance.”
"I had a productive call with SND (Secretary of National Defense) Lorenzana to discuss challenges in the South China Sea and the need for unity in ensuring security and stability in the region," Austin said in a tweet.
"The two leaders also affirmed the value of the US-Philippines Visiting Forces Agreement. They pledged to stay in close contact," read a separate statement from Austin's office.
Under the MDT signed by Manila and Washington in 1951, the two countries will come to each other's defense in case of “an armed attack on the metropolitan territory of either of the parties, or on the island territories under its jurisdiction in the Pacific Ocean, its armed forces, public vessels or aircraft in the Pacific.”
"Will work to expand the definition of trigger to include civilian passenger craft which is logical," Locsin said in a post on Twitter after two Chinese Navy attack crafts chased a Filipino civilian vessel with a news team on board in the West Philippine Sea.
"I’m not being sarcastic. Seriously, what if Filipinos on a pleasure craft, one of many yachts out there, crosses an invisible line drawn by China IN Philippine waters? What if they are fired upon or heaven forbid rammed—no, not that; those yachts cost millions of dollars," Locsin said in another Twitter post.
University of the Philippines Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea director Jay Batongbacal responded to Locsin's tweet: "PH civilian ships in PH waters should not have to worry about unknowingly tripping some invisible wire that makes them targets of China's cannons and missiles.”
The DFA chief, however, said it is Beijing that "should worry more."
"Trip over the wire it's WW3," Locsin said.
In a statement, Lorenzana's office said both US and the Philippines "are looking forward to the conduct of Exercise Balikatan, which was canceled last year."
Meanwhile, Philippine Ambassador to the United States Jose Manuel Romualdez said more US vessels are expected to arrive in the South China Sea following the entry of the Theodore Roosevelt Carrier Strike Group in the area on April 4 to conduct routine operations.
"US' freedom of navigation operations will continue. They've been increasing it in the past several months...precisely to protect the seaway there," he said in a television interview.
The US vessel arrived at the South China Sea days after the Philippines reported that over 200 Chinese fishing vessels, believed to be manned by Chinese maritime militia personnel, were moored in line formation near the Julian Felipe Reef.
For his part, retired Supreme Court associate justice Antonio Carpio said the Philippines must join freedom of navigation patrols to assert its rights in the West Philippine Sea and bring China again to an arbitral court over its recent aggressions.
“It's still a violation because that's our EEZ (exclusive economic zone). There’s freedom of navigation. Anyone can sail, they should not be stopped or harassed in our EEZ,” he said in a radio interview.
“Freedom of navigation operations are the strongest enforcement of [the 2016] arbitral ruling,” he added, referring to the decision by a UN tribunal that ruled in favor of the Philippines and dismissed China's claims over most of the South China Sea as “excessive.”
Also on Sunday, former Foreign Affairs secretary Albert Del Rosario denounced China for chasing away a Philippine civilian boat in the West Philippine Sea and later into Palawan, saying it is tantamount to a territorial incursion.
Rosario urged the Department of Foreign Affairs to pursue the issuance of a demarche or a petition or protest presented through diplomatic channel against China’s incursions of the country’s maritime territories in the West Philippine Sea.
The former DFA chief said the “demarche” against China should also be directed to the United Nations through the office of the UN secretary-general.
“Such UN notification will form part of official Ph communications, including those required under Article 51 of the UN Charter relating to individual and collective self-defense,” said Del Rosario, who was one of those who initiated the complaint of the Philippines against China’s massive nine-dash-line claims over the disputed South China Sea.
The former DFA secretary also prodded the government to revisit the joint patrol agreement of the West Philippine Sea with the United States and the Philippines, which had been approved by then-Deputy Secretary Anthony Blinken sometime in early 2016. Blinken is now the US State Secretary under the administration of US President Joe Biden.
“The agreement was not pursued by President Duterte as he was concerned that it would displease Beijing,” Del Rosario said.
Meanwhile, the DFA through acting Foreign Affairs Undersecretary for Bilateral Relations and ASEAN Affairs Elizabeth Buensuceso said the Philippines brought out the issue of the presence of Chinese militia vessels at the Julian Felipe Reef before the virtual ASEAN Senior Officials’ Meeting (SOM) on April 7.
“The continued deployment and lingering presence of a large swarm of maritime militia vessels within the Philippines’ maritime zones remains a serious concern and we reiterate that a conducive environment is crucial for the COC negotiations,” Buensuceso said.
The Philippines is currently the country coordinator for ASEAN-China Dialogue Relations.
Buensuceso said actions that intimidate, escalate tensions, and undermine mutual trust and confidence, violate sovereignty and sovereign rights, especially those that run counter to international law, particularly the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) impede the progress and momentum of the Code of Conduct negotiations and threaten their success.
The Philippines recently filed a series of diplomatic protests against Beijing for the continued incursion of a huge number of Chinese vessels in Julian Felipe Reef, an area located 175 nautical miles from Bataraza town in Palawan and way within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone.