The chairman of the House committee on strategic intelligence on Sunday called for the establishment of naval forward operating bases in the Philippine Sea, as former Supreme Court justice Antonio Carpio warned of China's “creeping expansion” in the region.
“We want the Philippine Navy positioned to prevent China from asserting administrative control over any reefs, rocks or lagoons within our 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone,'' said Surigao del Sur Rep. Johnny Pimentel, chairman of the House committee on strategic intelligence.
“We should avoid a repeat of the 2012 incident where China was able to occupy Bajo de Masinloc,” he said, referring to the Scarborough Shoal.
In military parlance, a forward operating base is a secure outpost that can serve as a springboard for sustained remote operations.
“The Navy should put up new FOBs in Palawan – one in the municipality of Balabac and one in the municipality of Busuanga – as part of its strategic basing plan, plus a third FOB in Subic Bay, which is only 123 nautical miles west of Bajo de Masinloc,” Pimentel said.
“We expect the Navy’s two lead warships to be posted in the FOBs and to routinely operate in the West Philippine Sea,” he said, referring to the multi-role guided missile frigates BRP Jose Rizal and BRP Antonio Luna.
He said he is counting on the Philippine Coast Guard to constantly deploy its lead ship – the French-made, 84-meter offshore patrol vessel BRP Gabriela Silang – in the waters threatened by unwanted Chinese forays.
“Both the Coast Guard and the Navy should marshal their best defensive fighting assets in the waters where we are most vulnerable,” he said.
In the 2012 standoff, Chinese coast guard and maritime militia vessels blocked access to Bajo de Masinloc, and thwarted the BRP Gregorio del Pilar from accosting Chinese boats caught illegally fishing in the area.
As part of a deal brokered by the United States government, bothChina and the Philippines were supposed to withdraw their ships from Bajo de Masinloc. After the Philippines pulled out, however, China reneged and kept occupying the chain of coral reefs and rocks that formed part of Masinloc in Zambales, Pimentel said.
Over the weekend, Carpio warned of China's grand plan to take over the Philippines' exclusive economic zone in the West Philippine Sea through what he described as “creeping expansion” in the South China Sea, which aims to make Beijing's so-called nine-dash line its national boundary.
Carpio, who has been urging the government to assert its sovereignty over its exclusive economic zone in the West Philippine Sea, said there is no need for the government to be preoccupied with determining who should be blamed and who ordered the withdrawal of Philippine Navy ships in 2012 as part of the United States-brokered agreement.
Carpio said that Beijing’s ultimate goal is to take control of the entire South China Sea through its creeping expansionism in the disputed waters that actually started when it seized control of half of the Paracel Island in 1946.
“China has a grand plan to make the nine dash line its national boundary. Control everything within the nine-dash line. This means they will get Scarborough Shoal, they will get the Spratlys. It’s very clear that’s their plan,” Carpio said, in an interview with GMA News.
“This is what we must stop. We must look at it from this point of view. It’s very clear. We must be on the same page. China will control the South China Sea because that is their plan,” Carpio said.
China claims 90 percent of the South China Sea based on the U-shaped nine-dash line etched on a map in the 1940s by a Chinese geographer. This dotted line was adopted from Chinese maps in the 1940s, and represents Beijing’s claim over the sea and all the land features that are contained within the line.
But on July 12, 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitration, adjudicating the Philippines’ case against China in the South China Sea, ruled overwhelmingly in favor of Manila, determining that major elements of Beijing’s claim—including its nine-dash line, recent land reclamation activities, and other activities in Philippine waters—were unlawful. The arbitral award also upheld the Philippines’s exclusive economic zone in the West Philippine Sea.
China rejected the arbitral ruling, maintaining that it was “null and void.”
“I don’t care about the squabble on who ordered the withdrawal (of the Philippine Navy ships). We have to look at the bigger picture. This is the plan of China to control the South China Sea to control and seize from us the West Philippine Sea — from the Spratlys to Scarborough shoal– to enforce the nine-dash line,” Carpio said.
Carpio recalled China’s seizure of half of Paracels in 1946 and subsequently the other half of the Paracel Island from South Vietnamese in 1974. “They took over Fiery Cross Reef in 1987. They seized Subi Reef and Mckinley Reef in 1988, they seized Mischief Reef in 1995, they seized Scarborough Shoal in 2012 and they seized Lacuna Shoal in 2013, and the last island that they seized from us was Sandy Cay in 2017,” he said.
Presidential spokesman Harry Roque, on the other hand, said the government must be “smart in taking care of our territory.”
“And maybe one lesson we could get here, even though our funds are limited, and we have various problems like pandemics, we still need to have an Armed Forces that is ready and capable to protect our territory and our sovereign zones,” he said in a separate interview with GMA News.
“The President takes the modernization of the Armed Forces seriously because he knows that even if we make friends, we should learn from history. Of course, diplomacy and friendship do not guarantee that you will not be exploited if you do not have capability to defend your territory,” Roque added.
Also on Sunday, Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. said that China’s Coast Guard law is not applicable in the Philippines’ maritime zones because it is only valid within Chinese borders.
“I refuse to have it studied as if it applied to our territorial waters. It doesn’t. So we in boats go about our waters like the CCG law does not exist; we run up against its enforcement we fight back… or submit. CHN (China) like PH can write any law but [it is] valid only within their borders,” Locsin posted on his Twitter.
Locsin made the statement in reaction to the statement made by Carpio, who said that the CCG law is a threat to the security not just of the Philippines but also to other claimant countries in the South China Sea.
Carpio earlier said the legality of the Chinese Coast Guard law can be challenged before the international tribunal.
Under the Chinese law, which was adopted by China’s Communist Party plenary on Jan. 22, 2021, China's coast guard is authorized to fire on foreign vessels, a move that may result in escalation of tension in the disputed South China Sea.
The Chinese law also empowers the Chinese Coast Guard to “take all necessary measures, including the use of weapons when national sovereignty, sovereign rights, and jurisdiction are being illegally infringed upon by foreign organizations or individuals at sea.”
Since the 2016 arbitral award only applies to the Philippines, Carpio said other claimant countries such as Malaysia, Indonesia and Vietnam can also question China’s excessive claims under the United Nations Convention for the Law of the Sea or UNCLOS.
Meanwhile, Vice President Leni Robredo on Sunday backed multilateral talks rather than bilateral talks with Beijing, which would put the Philippines at a disadvantage because of China's size and power.
“I think, we can only equalize our footing if we have allies with the same concerns,” Robredo said.