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CHINA WAR SHIPS SWARM AT WPS; BIGGEST U.S.-PHL DRILLS HEAT UP; France, Australia, 12 nations gird for gaes, G 7 airs support

By ALFRED GABOT and CLAIRE MORALES TRUE

Editor in Chief and Managing Editor

MANILA/WASHINGTON – As close to 17,000 troopers from the Philippines and the United States stage their biggest air, sea and land war games in years in West Philippine Sea, joined by 200 soldiers from France and Australia and observers from 12 nations, China ships swarmed in various areas within the Philippine territory and exclusive economic zone prompting participants to prepare for contingencies in case there will be unforeseen incidents or skirmishes.

From April 16 to 22, the Philippine Navy said they spotted 124 Chinese vessels including three People’s Liberation Army Navy warships and 11 Chinese Coast Guard vessels in Bajo de Masinloc, Ayungin Shoal, Pag-asa Island, Parola Island, Lawak Island, Panata Island, and Patag Island. Pag-asa Island, a town of Palawan, and Bajo de Masinloc had the biggest number of ships with 46 in Pag-asa that includes a China warship and 38 in Bajo de Masinloc, consisting of 7 Chinese Coast Guard ships and 31 Chinese militia vessels.

As this developed, the foreign ministers of the Group of Seven (G7) came out in the open to support the Philippines against China’s aggression in the South China Sea (SCS), adding Beijing has no basis for its claims over almost the entire South China Sea. G7 is composed of Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom, and the United States, and the European Union.

The Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) immediately thanked the G7, which is composed of  for their commitment to the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and the Arbitral Award of 2016 won by the Philippines against China.

“We appreciate the G7’s support in rejecting China’s baseless and expansive claims, and their call for China to cease its illegal activities, particularly its use of coast guard and maritime militia in the SCS that engage in dangerous maneuvers and the use of water cannons against Philippine vessels,” the DFA stated.

“We duly note and appreciate the G7’s reaffirmation that the 2016 Arbitral Award is a significant milestone and a useful basis for the peaceful management and resolution of differences at sea,” it added.

The Philippine Navy did not sound the alarm for the swarming of China ships but said they are prepared for any contingencies.

“Our monitoring for the past two months for March and April has given us a fairly constant—from a low of 33 and a high of 69, and average of 60 various vessels of China,” Philippine Navy spokesperson for the WPS Commodore Roy Vincent Trinidad said.

“Only for this week that we have seen a surge of up to a total of 124. Three People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) and (China) Coast Guard having 10. This coincides with Balikatan. This upsurge is out of the normal,” he added.

A day before the Balikatan was scheduled to begin, former US Air Force official and ex-defense attaché Ray Powell said on X (formerly Twitter) that two maritime militia ships left China’s military base at Mischief Reef and loitered near Second Thomas Shoal for six hours.

The Chinese vessels moved within 30 nautical miles away from the coastline of Palawan.

“China’s militia ships have turned back in the direction of Mischief Reef after loitering just outside the Philippines’ 24 nautical miles contiguous zone,” Powell said.

“Very odd behavior. Perhaps intended to send a message at the beginning of the PH-US Balikatan exercise?” he added.

Among the highlights of the exercises dubbed Balikatan 2024 are tTe navies of the Philippines, United States, and France sailing together in the West Philippine Sea, considered as one of many firsts which US Exercise Director Lt. General William Jurney described as the “most effective, most ambitious, and most complicated” version of the yearly war games started 38 years ago.

During the three-week drills, two Philippine Navy vessels, one US Navy ship, and a French Navy vessel will be executing different drills – communications, cross deck landing, and a maritime search and rescue with man overboard exercise, among others beyond the Philippines’ territorial waters and into the West Philippine Sea, an area that includes the country’s exclusive economic zone in the South China Sea.

On May 8, President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. and US officials are expected to attend and witness one of the highlights of war games  – a counter landing and ship-sinking exercise off the seas of Ilocos Norte, home province of the President, with the staging ground at the La Paz Sand Dunes in Laoag City.

The  Philippine and US forces will sink the MT Lake Caliraya, a China-made oil tanker once commissioned by the Philippine Navy. The vessel will serve as the “enemy” ship during the drill.

Formerly called the MT Lapu-Lapu, MT Lake Caliraya was built in 2007 at the Zhejiang Zhongxing Shipyard in Taizhou in China, according to a 2015 GMA News Online report. It was originally owned by the Philippine National Oil Company and commissioned into the Navy in 2015, only to be decommissioned in December 2020 to “pave the way for the arrival of new platforms.”

The Philippine Coast Guard (PCG), a civilian and a frontliner in the Philippines’ efforts to push its rights and claims in the West Philippine Sea, is also joining Balikatan for the first time, said PCG spokesperson Rear Admiral Armand Balilio, adding the PCG will provide “perimeter security” as the three navies stage their joint drills.

Aside from Ilocos Norte, the exercises will cover Palawan, Zambales and Batanes, four Luzon provinces that are critical to regional security in the Indo-Pacific and South China Sea. Batanes is the Philippines’ northernmost province near the Taiwan Strait while Palawan and Zambales face the West Philippine Sea and are just over 100 nautical miles away from Ayungin Shoal off the coast of Palawan, and Bajo de Masinloc off the coast of Zambales.

The Palawan drills will include the Philippines, US, and France jointly operating drills in the South China Sea, with the PCG as their security, it was reported.

 In Batanes, the exercise will involve an “island-taking” drill for the Special Forces of the Philippines and the US, said Major General Marvin Licudine, adding none of the drill were “addressed to any aggressor” but merely to show Philippine-US interoperability and adherence to the rule of law.

All in all, fourteen countries, including those from Southeast Asia, are part of the Philippine-hosted international observer program: Brunei, Canada, France, Germany, Great Britain, India, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, New Zealand, Republic of Korea, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam.

In a communiqué on global challenges and partnership, the G7 expressed opposition to China’s dangerous actions in the SCS and pointed out that the country had no legal basis to claim the area.

“We oppose China’s militarization, coercive and intimidation activities in the South China Sea. We re-emphasize the universal and unified character of the UNCLOS,” the ministers said.

 “We reiterate that the award rendered by the Arbitral Tribunal on July 12, 2016, is a significant milestone, which is legally binding upon the parties to those proceedings and a useful basis for peacefully resolving disputes between the parties,” it added.

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