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Philippines boosts surveillance in South China Sea

Philippine Secretary of National Defense Delfin Lorenzana (U.S. Department of State/Flickr)
July 25, 2020

This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.

The Philippines has installed improved tracking equipment in the South China Sea to protect areas it claims, the country’s defense secretary said Wednesday, as he took a strong stand against China.

Speaking at an online news briefing, Delfin Lorenzana said the Philippines would pursue a “principled foreign policy that serves our national interest,” and that “defending national sovereignty and protecting territorial integrity is a paramount priority of this administration.”

The comments came after Manila made an about-face in early June on its plan to cancel a key military pact with the United States, and more recently welcomed Washington’s new policy of overtly siding with Southeast Asian nations on territorial disputes in the South China Sea.

“In addressing recurrent tensions and harassments by military and civilian Chinese vessels, the Philippines has taken diplomatic actions against China for activities against our national sovereignty,” Lorenzana said.

It has also enhanced surveillance, security and development capabilities in the area, he said.

“The AFP (Armed Forces of the Philippines) improved its identification, detection and interdiction efforts through our newly-installed air defense surveillance radars, the conduct of wider air and maritime patrols, and setting up additional detachments in strategic locations,” Lorenzana said.

Last month, the Philippine military installed a new beaching ramp and a sheltered port for Filipino fishermen on Pag-asa island, or Thitu island. The ramp allows ships to dock on the island, making access for the construction of development projects easier.

That was just one of the developments that the government is aiming to implement in the nine islands in the municipality of Kalayaan, which covers Pag-asa.


Lorenzana said that the Philippines was still pushing for “effective implementation” of a code of conduct in the South China Sea, which Manila calls the West Philippine Sea, that has been under negotiation for almost two decades.

While agreeing to such a code in principle, China has repeatedly carried out actions in disputed waters in the potentially resource-rich sea region.

Vessel-tracking data and satellite imagery show that a vessel in service with China’s geological survey agency, the Hai Yang Di Zhi 12, was conducting a survey within 50 nautical miles of Scarborough Shoal as of Tuesday, and a China Coast Guard (CCG) that arrived at Scarborough Shoal on Monday was patrolling that feature, which is claimed by the Philippines.

Two other Chinese survey vessels, the Shiyan-1 and the Shen Kuo, have intruded into the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in recent weeks. The Shiyan-1 entered the Philippines’ EEZ on July 6 and is now in the middle of a survey covering the northern South China Sea and Macclesfield Bank area. The Shen Kuo was within 80 nautical miles of the Philippine coast on Tuesday, but left Philippine waters Wednesday.

Apart from China and the Philippines, other claimants in the South China Sea are Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam and Taiwan.

Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. had earlier issued a statement commemorating the fourth anniversary of the July 12, 2016 decision of the United Nations-backed Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, when the court sided with the Philippines in a case that Manila brought against China over a territorial dispute in the sea.

Locsin called on China to comply with the court’s decision, which has been repeatedly rejected by Beijing.

But Locsin and his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi met virtually last week to talk about managing territorial disputes in the South China Sea, a day after a stern warning from the United States.

The two “engaged in open, cordial and fruitful discussions” that centered on the conflict in the maritime region, a statement by the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs department said.

The top Chinese and Philippine diplomats met after U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo stated that Beijing’s claim over rocks and reefs in the Spratly Islands, a chain in the South China Sea, was unlawful, and its maritime claims based off alleged ownership of those features was in clear violation of international law.

In his statement issued on July 13, Pompeo slammed China’s insistence on holding economic rights to waters around Scarborough Reef, Mischief Reef, and Second Thomas Shoal, all of which are claimed by the Philippines.

The U.S. government in recent days has carried out a series of actions targeting China, ranging from sanctions over China’s imposition of harsh security laws in Hong Kong and over human rights abuses against Muslim Uyghurs in Xinjiang to public denunciations of Chinese territorial claims in the South China Sea. China has fired back, accusing Washington of meddling in its internal affairs with a series of provocative actions aimed at undermining Beijing.