U.S. VOWS ANEW TO DEFEND PHL AS SEA TENSIONS ESCALATE; China warships shadow US, PHL vessels while in joint WPS patrol
By ALFRED GABOT, Editor in Chief
MANILA/WASHINGTON – The Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) and the United States Indo-Pacific Command (USINDOPACOM) Strike Force conducted on January 3 and 4 their second joint patrol and mock operations in West Philippine Sea (WPS) even as China warships shadowed the vessels of the Philippines and the United States during their “maritime cooperative activity” (MCA).
Several US fighter planes, warships, and an aircraft carrier joined the Philippine Navy vessels on the last day of their joint maritime patrol and maneuvers in the West Philippine Sea (WPS). The Philippines deployed the BRP Gregorio Del Pilar (PS-15), BRP Ramon Alcaraz (PS-16), and AW109 helicopter during the exercises.
For the first time, air assets of the Armed Forces of the Philippines were allowed to land on the Nimitz class aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson which is part of the US Navy’s Pacific Fleet.
Latest reports showed the US Navy’s Carrier Strike Group also showed the quick takeoff and landing of 16 aircraft.
The BRP Ramon Alcaraz issued radio challenges to the Chinese ships tailing them five times but received no response.
The Chinese warships, identified as the guided missile destroyer Hefei and the frigate Huangshan tailed the BRP Ramon Alcaraz and her sister ship BRP Gregorio del Pilar and BRP Davao del Sur (LD-602), a landing platform dock, as the Philippine ships sailed in formation for the whole day.
Earlier, the US State Department reaffirmed its “ironclad commitments” to defned the Philippines in case of attack amid the escalating tensions in the West Philippine Sea and Beijing continued aggressiveness in the region.
This as the ministers of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) aired their concern about the growing tensions in the region. (See related story)
“Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke today with Philippine Secretary of Foreign Affairs Enrique Manalo about issues of mutual concern, including ongoing tensions in the South China Sea. Secretary Blinken underscored the United States’ ironclad commitments to the Philippines under our Mutual Defense Treaty,” the US State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said in a statement.
The US State Department also said that Blinken and Secretary Manalo “exchanged ideas on how to reinforce US-Philippines cooperation in the coming year.”
The call between Blinken and Manalo was made as Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi warned the Philippines to “act with caution” as he claimed that Philippines should be blamed for the tensions in the disputed South China Sea. China had attacked Philippine vessels with water cannon and laser in several run-ins.
Wang also warned Manalo that the Philippine-China ties are now “facing serious difficulties.”
The Philippines, United States and Japan vowed to strengthen trilateral efforts in defense and security capabilities to “maintain a free and open maritime order” following the latest unsafe operational behavior by Chinese military ships against Philippine vessels in the West Philippine Sea.
During the encounters, the Chinese vessels employed water cannons and forced a collision which caused damage to Philippine vessels undertaking official supply missions. Chinese military ships operating near Bajo de Masinloc also used acoustic devices to incapacitate Filipino crew members.
The international community condemned China’s “dangerous and unlawful” actions at Ayungin (Second Thomas) Shoal and Bajo de Masinloc, also called Panatag Shoal or Scarborough Shoal, in the West Philippine Sea and called out Beijing for interfering in lawful Philippine maritime operations.
They called on Beijing anew to abide by the legally binding July 2016 Arbitral Tribunal ruling and desist from further provocative behavior.
In separate statement, the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) confirmed Manalo’s conversation with Blinken.
“Secretary Manalo reaffirmed the Philippines’ abiding interest to protect its sovereignty, sovereign rights and jurisdiction, while maintaining peace and security and upholding the rules-based international order,” the DFA said in a statement.
“Secretary Manalo emphasized the importance of dialogue and maintaining open lines of communication with other parties in pursuit of these objectives,” it added.
Both Manalo and Blinken acknowledged the Philippines-United States alliance and bilateral relations, as well as discussed important opportunities for further strengthening cooperation in 2024.
AFP spokesman Col. Xerxes Trinidad said the two-day PHL-US activities at West Philippine Sea consisted of passing exercises, communication checks, cross-deck exercises, joint patrols, officer of the watch (OW) maneuvers, and fixed-wing flight operations.
Trinidad said the AFP deployed four Philippine Navy vessels, a search-and-rescue/multi-role helicopter, and an anti-submarine warfare capable helicopter.
On the other hand, the USINDOPACOM utilized four US Navy vessels from the Carrier Strike Group 1– an aircraft carrier, a cruiser, two destroyers, and multiple combat aircraft.
The first MCA between Philippines and the US took place from Nov. 21 to 23 last year and involved naval vessels and aircraft from the two countries, said AFP chief Gen. Romeo Brawner Jr., adding the second MCA is a significant leap between the Philippines-US alliance and their interoperability.
“It also demonstrates our progress in defense capabilities and development as a world-class armed force, as we carry out our mandate to protect the people and the state. Our alliance is stronger than ever, sending a message to the world. We are advancing a rules-based international order and a free and open Indo-Pacific Region in the face of regional challenges,” Brawner said.