MANILA, Philippines — Aside from the United States, at least three other countries – Japan, South Korea and Australia – are helping the Philippines establish a minimum credible defense posture to complement its diplomatic capacity in dealing with its territorial disputes with China in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea).
Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario pointed this out over the weekend as he also disclosed that the Tokyo government is likely to provide the country with 12 patrol boats.
“They’re considering 10 forty-meter patrol boats on ODA (Official Development Aid) and two larger ones as grants,” Del Rosario told the Philippine Daily Inquirer
In a text message, he also said: “Regarding South Korea, we have a logistics agreement and we have received equipment, such as vests and helmets (for the Armed Forces of the Philippines).”
“I understand our defense department is looking to possibly purchase aircraft from there,” according to Del Rosario.
In November, President Benigno Aquino III asked visiting South Korean President Lee Myung-bak for aircraft, patrol boats and other hardware to help boost the country’s military amid then rising tensions with China over the Spratlys Islands.
Lee did not disclose any response to the specific request but said Seoul wanted to help Manila resolve its maritime problems.
From Australia, the Department of Foreign Affairs head said the country could expect to get “a number of vessels for search-and-rescue, as well as significant training here and abroad for large numbers of our military (personnel).”
“We expect increased help (from the Australian government) when the Status of the Visiting Forces Agreement (or SOFVA between Manila and Canberra) is ratified, hopefully this week,” said Del Rosario.
The SOFVFA, which covers the “status of visiting forces from each state while in the territory of the other state,” was signed on May 31, 2007 in the Australian capital by then Defense Secretary Hermogenes Ebdane Jr. and his counterpart Defense Minister Brendan Nelson.
The signing of the bilateral pact was witnessed by then President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo and then Australian Prime Minister John Howard.
Last week, Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin confirmed reports that the Philippines would acquire at least 10 patrol boats from Japan. However, he declined to discuss with reporters details of the acquisition still in progress.
Coast Guard head Vice Admiral Edmund Tan said they have been negotiating a loan for the acquisition of the vessels.
Meanwhile, the AFP chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Jessie Dellosa, said the process of building a credible defense for the country has been moving fast, with the Navy’s acquisition of a second Hamilton-class cutter from the US.
The first such acquisition, the BRP Gregorio del Pilar, figured in the early part of the standoff between the Philippines and China over the Scarborough Shoal in the West Philippine Sea, which Manila calls Bajo de Masinloc and Panatag Shoal.
On the other hand, Beijing refers to the rock formation as Huangyan Island.
Del Rosario has repeatedly said “we have committed ourselves to improve our national defense by building a minimum credible defense posture” as he also stressed the need to protect national sovereignty.
“Given the country’s lack of resources, it behooves us to proactively seek the assistance and cooperation of our various international partners to achieve this minimum credible posture, which is a fundamental attribute of any sovereign country,” he also said.
According to Del Rosario, the “defense track” is part of the DFA’s comprehensive overall plan in promoting national security.
This year, the Philippines would be receiving about $144.66 million (about P6.25 billion) in defense assistance from the US, he said.
Aside from the delivery of a second Coast Guard cutter, “negotiations are likewise underway for more defense articles, including newer air assets for the Philippine Air Force. We also successfully secured funding in the amount of $53 million (about P2.3 billion) for radar systems to be used by the Coast Guard Watch Council for enhanced maritime domain awareness.”
He said Manila has been upgrading its defense partnership with Washington under the two allies’ Mutual Defense Treaty, citing changes in the regional and global security environment.
Del Rosario emphasized their focal point for cooperation has been to “increase our capacity for territorial defense and maritime security.”
Aside from the defense track, he also referred to the DFA’s diplomatic or political track, where the country would continue to push for the transformation of the West Philippine Sea into a Zone of Peace, Freedom, Friendship, and Cooperation, or ZoPFFC.
Under the ZoPFFC, Manila would observe a rules-based approach to all disputes in accordance with the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).
For the legal track, the DFA plans to continue coordinating with other concerned government agencies as it resorts to dispute settlement mechanisms under UNCLOS.
According to Del Rosario, “there are five of them and we’re assessing which one is best for us, one that will serve our purpose well.”
Scarborough Shoal lies north of the Spratlys and 124 nautical miles west of Zambales province.
Both asserting their territorial claim to the shoal, Manila and Beijing have refused to recall their vessels from the area.
China has violated the Asean Declaration on the Conduct of Parties “for not allowing us to enforce our laws in the country’s 200-nautical mile Exclusive Economic Zone,” according to Del Rosario.
The Philippines earlier filed a protest with the UN, challenging China’s nine-dash claim that encompasses the whole West Philippine Sea.
Last month, Manila asked the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) to take a stand on its dispute with China over the Scarborough Shoal.
Del Rosario asserted that “all, not just the Philippines, will ultimately be negatively affected if we do not take a stand.”
He observed “if you take a good look, it appears to us that China wants to establish the rules. Obviously, there’s a negative implication for everyone, not just the Philippines.”
Asked if they would ask the US government’s help in resolving the conflict, he said they “would want all nations to make a judgment as to what’s happening there and what the implications are to their own countries.”
He claimed Washington has already taken a “very constructive role” in resolving the Spratlys dispute, when it pushed for the application of international law in solving the problem.