Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Seized Chinese vessels remind Philippine Navy ‘we can do it’

PUERTO PRINCESA CITY—Odd-looking dinghies with markings of the Western Command stuck out like a sore thumb among camouflaged naval vessels lined up for the start on Monday of the military component of the annual war games between the Philippines and the United States.

The dinghies looked different because they were Chinese fishing boats seized by Philippine Navy patrols during numerous cases of Chinese incursions into Philippine territory. The boats have been commissioned into the Naval Forces West, a branch of the Philippine Navy tasked with guarding against further Chinese incursions.

“It is not always that the Chinese get away like they did in Scarborough,” said a Navy officer who asked not to be identified.

He was referring to the escape of all eight Chinese fishing boats amid a standoff in Scarborough Shoal, 230 km west of Zambales province in Luzon.

“Yes, those (Chinese) boats in our possession mean we can do it,” said Col. Neil Estrella, spokesperson of the Western Command.

Philippine and US officials were, nevertheless, careful not to spin this year’s ratcheted-up edition of the Balikatan exercises into a muscle-flexing event against China’s aggression currently on display at the Scarborough Shoal.

“We’ve been doing this (joint military exercises) every year … This is just part of a continuing mission of the US military,” said US Marine Capt. Staci Reidinger at a press briefing on Monday.

Reidinger is the Exercise Balikatan 2012-Palawan US Forces public affairs officer but he is normally assigned to the Marine Corps Air Station in Yuma, Arizona, as director of public affairs.

With more US troops participating in the exercise done annually for the past 28 years under the Mutual Defense Treaty and Visiting Forces Agreement, close to 1,000 personnel have built more school buildings and increased medical assistance this year than in previous years. (This is the 10th time that the exercise was held in Palawan.)

The public relations officers of both sides have exerted more effort to defuse questions on the impact of this year’s exercises on tension between the Philippines and China over their claims in the Spratlys.

“We’re not here scouting out sites (for bases). I understand this seems to be a popular speculation but we’re not hunting out sites,” Lt. Ray Ragan, a US military spokesperson, said at the outset of medical missions in impoverished Palawan communities two weeks ago.

Still, some of the objectives of the amphibious military exercises have attracted the attention of media and activists such as Pamalakaya, a fisherfolk group that had accused the United States of preparing to develop Palawan as a de facto naval base.