National Unity Party (NUP) president LRay Villafuerte is hopeful that the impending joint maritime patrols in the West Philippine Sea (WPS) by the Philippines and the United States (US) will evolve into a multilateral security arrangement with the possible inclusion of like-minded allies like Australia and Japan.

“A multilateral maritime security setup in the WPS involving Australia and more allies other than the US has become a probability following last week’s elevation of  Manila-Canberra defense and economic ties from a comprehensive to a strategic partnership, in support of a stable and peaceful Indo-Pacific Region,” Villafuerte, who represents Camarines Sur’s second district in the House of Representatives, said.

Earlier, Villafuerte expressed optimism that joint patrols in the WPS are happening soon enough after American President Joe Biden assured President Marcos during the latter’s official working visit to Washington  earlier this month that the US would have Manila’s back on South China Sea (SCS) concerns and on expanding maritime security cooperation—in accordance with the 1951 RP-US Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT).

A strong backer of joint patrols in the WPS to check Beijing’s increasingly aggressive incursions into our legitimate territory and exclusive economic zone (EEZ), Villafuerte is bullish about the inclusion of Australia in the planned joint WPS patrols involving the US and the Philippines, after visiting Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong conveyed last May 18  that Canberra is open to cooperation with the Philippines on ensuring freedom of navigation and overflight in the Indo-Pacific region.  

“There are clear signs indeed that joint maritime patrols in Philippine waters with the US, and possibly with other like-minded allies like Australia and Japan that are aspiring for a stable and peaceful Indo-Pacific region, are happening sooner than later against the backdrop of incessant, increasingly  aggressive incursions by Chinese vessels into our territory and EEZ,” Villafuerte said.

Villafuerte noted that during a courtesy call in Malacañan Palace last Thursday, Wong had informed President Marcos about the commitment of Australian Prime Minister Anthony Norman Albanese  to enhance ties to a strategic partnership between the two countries.

For his part, President Marcos said during the courtesy call by Wong that amid the current situation,  security partnerships have “become extremely important and it might be the key to maintaining the peace not only in the Asia Pacific but the Indo-Pacific region.”

When asked in a press briefing after the May 18 Palace courtesy call whether Australia would conduct joint patrols with the Philippines and the US, Wong replied that, “”We are open to cooperating with all our partners to exercise freedom of navigation and overflight. And the Philippines is a long-standing important security partner for us.”

Wong said, “We all want peace. We all want stability. We all want to prosper, and we want to work with our strategic partners, and we hope to be one soon with the Philippines.”

“We recognize that no single country can do this alone and that stronger and better partnerships result in better outcomes for all,” she added. “We want a region that is predictable and operates by agreed rules, standards and laws in which sovereignty is respected.”

Wong recalled that during the February visit to Manila of Australian Deputy Prime Minister Richard Marles, he had spoken about the need for increased combined maritime activity such as joint patrols … Our (respective defense) departments are discussing the best pathway to take this forward.”

Villafuerte said there is a better chance, too, that  Japan might take part in the planned joint patrols, as Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) Secretary Enrique Manalo himself said last week that trilateral military cooperation among Manila, Canberra and Tokyo “are certainly under consideration … We look forward to discussing with Australia and our other partners, Japan, and even with perhaps the US, on possible modes of cooperation … we are certainly planning to take forward these discussions in the very near future.”

During Wong’s Manila visit, a new package of maritime cooperation initiatives was announced for the Philippines, which Canberra sees as a “vital security partner” in maintaining a “peaceful, stable and prosperous” Indo-Pacific region.

Reflecting the elevation of both countries’ partnership from “comprehensive” to “strategic,” this package includes the grant of technical assistance and capacity building for the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG); provision of  equipment, skills and technology on improving maritime domain awareness and marine protection;  support for women’s leadership in maritime security; and aid on addressing  the environmental impact of the recent oil spill by a capsized tanker off Oriental Mindoro.

Earlier, Villafuerte expressed optimism that joint patrols in the WPS are happening soon enough after American President Joe Biden assured President Marcos during the latter’s official working visit to Washington  earlier this month that the US would have Manila’s back on South China Sea (SCS) concerns and on expanding maritime security cooperation—in accordance with the 1951 RP-US Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT).

Philippine Ambassador to the US Jose Manuel Romualdez’s subsequent statements in media interviews have buttressed Villafuerte’s optimism on joint patrols with the US and other allies, as Romualdez said in media interviews that, “I foresee it (joint patrols) to happen very soon.”

“This time, we’re seriously sitting down and putting down the parameters of where the Philippines and Australia, who is obviously very much interested in joining these joint patrols or joint exercises with the United States, and hopefully, Japan will also look at this opportunity for them to join forces,” Romualdez was quoted as saying in one of these  media interviews.

A former CamSur governor, Villafuerte said “such hoped-for bilateral or multilateral border security patrols will be superior to Manila’s current approach of just firing hundreds of diplomatic protests over the incessant intrusions of CCG (Chinese Coast Guard), PLA (People’s Liberation Army) and CMM (Chinese Maritime Militia) boats into waters that a United Nations (UN)-backed arbitral ruling declared in 2016  to be part  of our territory and EEZ (exclusive economic zone).”

“We need to leverage the 2016 decision of the PCA (Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, the Netherlands) to junk  China’s nine-dash-line claims and at the same time affirm the Philippines’   legal stake over the WPS,” he said. “And the appropriate  approach for us  right now to better defend our territory against the bullying ways of a military superpower like China is to secure Philippine waters with the help of the US and possibly our other allies like Australia and Japan  that similarly aspire for peace, security and stability in the region.”

The PCA ruling’s support of the Philippine claim over the WPS was in accordance with the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

However, Beijing’s nine-dash line claims almost all of the South China Sea (SCS), including the WPS, as China’s territory.

“The raison d’être of our proposed joint sails with our allies is the blatant disregard of our legal ownership of the WPS and of what covers our EEZ by China,” he said, “whose official and paramilitary vessels have relentlessly been intruding into our waters regardless of the spate of high-level diplomatic talks between Manila and Beijing on the supposed pursuit of a peaceful, non-violent settlement of this territorial issue.”

He bewailed that the three diplomatic negotiations between Manila and Beijing this year—which started with talks between President Marcos and President Xi Jinping  during the former’s visit to Beijing last January—had virtually accomplished nothing, as such formal engagements were followed by even more aggressive incursions into our territory and EEZ.   

Villafuerte recalled that the two President agreed during Mr. Marcos’ Beijing visit last January to address the maritime issues “through diplomacy and dialogue and never through coercion and intimidation.”

However, a month later on Feb. 6, the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) and the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) reported that  CCG vessel 5205 had trained a military-grade laser light on BRP Malapascua, which was on a resupply mission for Filipino soldiers stationed at the Ayungin Shoal, temporarily blinding the crew of the Philippine coast guard boat.

Then in March, he said,  42 Chinese vessels were spotted by the PCG intruding into the WPS, right after the conclusion in Manila of the 7th Bilateral Consultations Mechanism (BCM) SCS that involved top Chinese and DFA officials.

The CamSur solon then noted that  after President Marcos’ talks in Manila two weeks ago with then-visiting Chinese Foreign Minister Qun Gang on establishing more “lines of communications” to immediately resolve territorial conflicts at the SCS, over 100 Chinese vessels were reported   intruding into and doing “illegal actions” in the WPS, including the near-crash of a CCG ship with the PCG patrol boat with journalists onboard.

After President Biden assured President Marcos last May 1 of the US’ “ironclad” commitment to the 1951 RP-US MDT  on Day 1  of the latter’s official working visit to the US, more American officials—from Harris to Secretaries Austin  and Blinken—then underscored Washington’s pledge to expand and modernize the bilateral defense cooperation between the two allies. 

Following Mr. Marcos’ meeting with Austin at the Pentagon on the new Bilateral Defense Guidelines, the US defense department released a fact sheet reaffirming both countries’ commitment to the MDT “in support of a vision for a free and open Indo-Pacific region and rules-based international order shared by both countries … including anywhere in the South China Sea.” 

“So, make no mistake Mr. President, we will always have your back in the South China Sea or elsewhere in the region,” Austin said to President Marcos during their May 3 meeting at the Pentagon. 

While Mr. Marcos was still in the US, the PCG reported that some 100 Chinese ships were still in our territorial waters, over a week since they were first spotted there during the April 18-24 patrol of the WPS by the PCG, as ordered by our President. 

The monitored vessels included the boat— CCG vessel 5201—that almost collided with BRP Malapascua after this Chinese ship twice its size shadowed and came close at 45 meters of this PCG boat that was one of the two Philippine vessels enroute to the Ayungin Shoal.  The other was the BRP Malabrigo.  

For Villafuerte, Manila needs to double down on plans for joint maritime patrols with the US and other allies in the hope of finally putting a stop to the relentless Chinese intrusions.

“With Beijing ignoring time and again  the hundreds of diplomatic protests that have been filed by Manila over the nonstop intrusions  of Chinese vessels into the WPS, I believe the best approach we can take at this point to put an end to such bullying tactics is for us to double down on plans for joint patrols in the disputed waterway with the US and other allies like Japan and Australia that seem open to such a border security arrangement,” Villafuerte said. 

More than 200 diplomatic protests have reportedly been lodged by Manila against Beijing in recent years, about a third of which on the Marcos watch.

“That the incessant harassment of Philippine vessels in our very own territory have been increasing despite the series of  official  engagements between Beijing and Manila—ostensibly in pursuit of a peaceful resolution to this territorial dispute—only illustrates,” he said, “that  the Philippine government’s filing of diplomatic protests over and over  against such Chinese bullying is a futile approach.”



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