Aquino, Obama may tackle West PH Sea row

Posted at 04/01/14 6:22 PM

MANILA - President Aquino and US President Barack Obama may discuss tensions in the West Philippine Sea when the US leader swings by for a visit later this month.

This comes after the US State Department issued a statement saying that China's attempt to block a supply ship from reaching Ayungin Shoal was provocative.

Communications Secretary Sonny Coloma said defense and security will definitely be a topic in the talks between President Aquino and President Obama.

"When you talk of this topic, the most relevant issue that can be discussed would be the West Philippine Sea so it is entirely within the realm of possibility. But, I believe, there are other issues that will be tackled since what is involved here is strategic partnership between two countries," he said.

Coloma said the West Philippine Sea does not represent the totality of the country's national interest or national security concerns.

Asked if the proposed increased rotational presence agreement between the Philippines and US will be part of the country's strategy in dealing with the territorial disputes with China, he said: "The agreement for enhanced defense cooperation between the Philippines and the US must be viewed within the context of the fact that the Philippines has strategic partnership with the United States."

"But that is to be viewed in the context of the totality of our defense and national security concerns not just at a single concern such as the West Philippine Sea."

The United States on Monday criticized China for being provocative after its coast guard tried to block a Philippine vessel that was rotating troops in the tense South China Sea.

State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf told reporters the Philippines had permission to resupply troops to the remote reef, the Second Thomas Shoal, because it has kept a naval presence there since before a 2002 declaration of conduct in the South China Sea.

President Aquino stood firm on the Philippine claim to the shoal, a day after his government filed a memorial before the International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea (ITLOS) on the arbitration case.

He, however, said he is not out to challenge China.

Coloma said the Philippines can only rely on the power of diplomacy. The Philippines is perceived to have one of the weakest armed forces in the world.

The Palace official said there are several avenues for multilateral action including bringing the matter to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

"As we know, the ASEAN in 2012 in the meeting there in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, agreed to flesh out the decade-old, more than decade-old declaration of the Code of Conduct. So there seems to be more willingness on the part of the affected member-nations to concretely spell out the parameters for addressing the issues in the South China Sea or in the West Philippine Sea," he said.

"We continue to engage our fellow ASEAN members, both bilaterally and multilaterally, that there must be an ASEAN -centric approach considering that there are overlapping expanded economic zones in the claims of the various member countries."

He also said there are other international bodies that are providing support such as the European Union and the European community. "So we will just continue to rely on expressions, manifestations and demonstrations of international solidarity."


Coloma said bringing the matter before ITLOS is just one option that the Philippines is eyeing to settle the sea dispute.

He rebutted claims reportedly made by the China Foreign Ministry that the Philippines is using media hype when it brought reporters to Ayungin Shoal when it restocked its outpost over the weekend.

"Well, you yourselves will be able to determine if there is hype or exaggeration. I don't think we have hype or given excessive coverage to this matter. All that we did was to provide an opportunity for some members of media to see firsthand the situation. And they have reported it as they have seen it," he said.

The Palace spokesman said he will leave it to Philippine telecommunications companies and the Department of National Defense to act on reports that China mobile service is available in Ayungin Shoal. This, after reporters who visited Ayungin Shoal got a China Mobile prompt on their cellphones over the weekend.

"Well, we will just allow them to look into their own concerns; and if they wish, they can inform us of their findings. Our Department of National Defense will know what appropriate actions are needed. I supposed they have discussed [this] with the reporters concerns and they must have conducted some kind of debriefing exercises after their participation in the event."

Coloma also dismissed a question on whether there is a need for a United Nations peacekeeping force deployment.

"Tinitimbang naman natin ang sitwasyon. Pero pansinin naman natin na sa larangang 'yan nagkakaroon lang ng ganyang sitwasyon kapag ito ay isang bagay na inilahad na mismo sa United Nations General Assembly, saka lang nagte-take action 'yung UN. Sa ngayon naman ay hindi naman humahantong sa ganyang antas 'yung conflict na pinag-uusapan natin," he said. With Agence France-Presse