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Philippine, Japan head agree to tackle security in disputed sea

A Chinese warship was spotted in the area of Scarborough Shoal or Bajo de Masinloc in the West Philippine Sea. Philippine Coast Guard/Released. Sketched by the Pan Pacific Agency.

MANILA, May 21, 2021, The Manila Times. President Rodrigo Duterte and Japan Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga have agreed to work together to maintain security and stability in the disputed South China Sea, The Manila Times reported.

Malacañang said on Thursday Duterte had a 20-minute “warm, engaging and productive” telephone conversation with Suga on Wednesday, discussing issues ranging from the South China Sea and the Covid-19 pandemic to piracy and terrorism.

Duterte stressed the need for cooperation in promoting domain awareness, maritime security and safety, freedom of navigation and overflight, and maritime connectivity and commerce,” the Palace said in a statement.

The President also called for the “peaceful settlement” of disputes, saying the Asia-Pacific region “cannot afford conflicts between neighbors.”

Suga expressed his concern about developments in the East and South China Seas.

He also expressed appreciation for the Philippines’ “principled position” espoused by Duterte during the 75th session of the United Nations General Assembly on the 2016 Arbitral Ruling.

Tension in the West Philippine Sea has been building up over the incursion of Chinese vessels in areas within the Philippine exclusive economic zone (EEZ).

Duterte told Suga that Japan’s increased engagement in the Brunei-Indonesia-Malaysia-Philippines East Asean Growth Area was key to revitalizing socioeconomic growth and promoting security in the Sulu and Celebes Seas.

The President thanked the Japanese government for its aid to the Philippines’ Covid-19 response.

“This includes the 20-billion-yen approval out of the 50-billion-yen Post-Disaster Standby Loan and 1 billion yen more for cold chain development assistance,” Malacañang said.

Suga was supposed to visit the Philippines but opted to have a virtual or phone interview with Duterte instead due to the rise in Covid-19 cases in Japan.

On Thursday, Palace spokesman Harry Roque Jr. said Duterte was considering inviting the country’s former presidents to a meeting to discuss issues concerning the West Philippine Sea.

Roque made the statement in reaction to the call of former senator Rodolfo Biazon to convene the National Security Council (NSC) to clarify the government’s stand on the disputed waters.

Roque said the President was not inclined to bring such issues before the NSC.

“Nabanggit po sa akin ni Presidente: ang problema dun sa National Security Council, wala naman pong nareresolve dun sa mga pagkakataon na nakaatend siya (The President told me: the problem with the National Security Council is nothing is ever resolved there),” he said.The President was more agreeable to inviting former presidents and some other personalities to a meeting to discuss the issue, Roque said.

He said there was nothing confusing in the President’s stand on the maritime dispute.

“Ang hindi pupuwedeng mapagkasunduan, isasantabi muna. Isusulong ang mga bagay na pwedeng maisulong gaya ng kalakalan at pamumuhunan (What we cannot resolve, we will set aside. We will pursue what can be pursued, like trade and investments),” Roque said.

Last Monday, Duterte invited former senator Juan Ponce Enrile to Malacañang to shed light on issues concerning the West Philippine Sea.

Sen. Mary Grace Poe on Thursday echoed Biazon’s call to convene the NSC to help the government come up with “a clear and united stand” on the West Philippine Sea issue.

“It is high time that the whole-of-government approach comes up with a clear and united stand on the West Philippine Sea issue,” Poe said in a statement.

“The convening of the NSC asap (as soon as possible) will be a timely intervention. We cannot be divided as a nation when we talk about our sovereignty,” she said.

Poe said protecting territorial integrity “is so vital to a country’s survival that we must not confuse it with friendship or utang na loob (debt of gratitude).”

Sen. Panfilo “Ping” Lacson has said the “return” of Chinese maritime militia ships to the WPS should be a wake-up call for Filipinos to unite and come up with one strong stand on the issue.

Lacson said other possibilities must be explored, including using parliamentary-to-parliamentary channels, to ensure a balance of power in the region.

Close to 290 Chinese maritime militia vessels were spotted inside the 200-nautical mile EEZ, including at various maritime features covered by Kalayaan town in Palawan.

Kalayaan has jurisdiction over Sabina Shoal, where one of the more recent presence of Chinese vessels was noted. Sabina Shoal is just some 130 nautical miles from Puerto Princesa in Palawan.

Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana believes operational matters concerning the West Philippine Sea can still be discussed by military units.

Lorenzana said the gag order imposed by the President on his Cabinet was more on policy.

“What I understand [about] the President’s gag order is on policy,” he said in a message on Wednesday night. “For operational matters, the WesCom (Western Command) can still speak, such as deployment of assets in WPS.”

On Enrile’s advice, Duterte issued the gag order, exempting only Roque.

The next day, Roque said only him and Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. would be discussing the matters concerning the West Philippine Sea.

Military spokesman Maj. Gen. Edgard Arevalo explained that even before Duterte issued the directive, military reports were already going straight to the National Task Force for the West Philippine Sea or NTF-WPS.

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