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DFA breaks overall plan on Scarborough dispute in 3 tracks

MANILA, Philippines—Citing the Department of Foreign Affairs’ (DFA) comprehensive “overall plan” on promoting national security, Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario has expressed confidence the Philippines could settle peacefully its Scarborough Shoal dispute with China, as well as other West Philippine Sea-, or South China Sea-related issues.

Del Rosario noted “the Chinese are now in violation of the (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) Declaration on the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea when they are preventing us from enforcing our laws in our Exclusive Economic Zone.”

Briefing reporters before he left for an official trip to the United States last weekend, the DFA head said they had “broken up (the) overall plan into diplomatic or political, legal and defense tracks.”

For the political track, he said the country would continue to push for the transformation of the West Philippine Sea into a Zone of Peace, Freedom, Friendship and Cooperation (ZOPFFC).

Del Rosario reiterated that 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.

For the legal track, the DFA plans to continue coordinating with other concerned government agencies as it resorts to a dispute settlement mechanisms under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, or UNCLOS.

“There are five of them and we’re assessing which one is best for us, one that will serve our purpose well,” he noted.

For the defense track, Del Rosario said the foreign office had committed to improve national defense by building a minimum credible defense posture to protect the country’s territorial sovereignty.

“We need this to complement our diplomatic capacity,” he emphasized.

Given the country’s lack of resources, he earlier said “it behooves us to proactively seek the assistance and cooperation of our various international partners (like the United States) to achieve this minimum credible defense posture, which is a fundamental attribute of any sovereign country.”

This year, the Philippines will be receiving about $144.66 million in defense assistance from the US, he disclosed.

Aside from the delivery of a second Hamilton-class 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 for radar systems to be used by the Coast Watch Council for enhanced maritime domain awareness,” he told a recent media forum.

According to Del Rosario, Manila is also updating its defense partnership with Washington under the two allies’ Mutual Defense Treaty, citing changes in the regional and global security environment.

He emphasized “our focal point for cooperation is to increase our capacity for territorial defense and maritime security.”

Last weekend, Del Rosario also said, “We’re in the process of being part of the drafting of the Code of Conduct (of parties in the South China Sea).”

He said, however, that “we ran on a little problem on that because the chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Cambodia) appears to take that China should be invited early so that it could be part of selecting the major elements that could go to the COC in the part of the drafting committee.”

“So we’re saying that is in violation of the position that the centrality of Asean should be maintained. We think that the exercise of the major elements to be included in the COC, as well as the drafting of it should be internal among Asean (member-states). And once that’s done then, we can invite China,” asserted Del Rosario.

The West Philippine Sea remains a core national interest for the country, and “diplomatically, we are working to ensure that what is ours is ours,” he said, adding a rules-based approach would be the “only legitimate and viable way of addressing disputes in the West Philippine Sea.

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