Monday, April 4, 2011

Testing Diplomacy in Contested Waters

Testing Diplomacy in Contested Waters
By Erick San Juan

It looks like the waters near the contested area in the South China Sea has been (and will be) the site for a couple of naval military exercises.

One of which was the recently concluded MALPHI-LAUT 14-11 that took place from March 16 to 26 in Palawan which is an annual naval military exercises between the Philippines and Malaysia since 1994 through the Defense Cooperation Memorandum of Understanding (MOU). This is a bilateral maritime training exercise that aims to strengthen the relationship and enhance the mutual co-operation between both navies through the development of combined operational doctrines, practices and naval tactics.

Now on its 14th time, our country and Malaysia have been alternately hosting the Malaysian-Philippines Laut (MALPHI-LAUT) naval exercises. This year’s venue (in Palawan) has nothing to do with the March 2 incident at the Reed Bank near the disputed Spratly islands.

According to Navy spokesman Capt. Giovanni Carlo Bacordo, MALPHI-LAUT was planned six months before. “It was way before the Reed Bank incident…it is not being done because of what happened. It’s not. The planning activity between the Royal Malaysian Navy and the Philippine Navy started second semester of 2010 then the final planning conference happened fourth quarter of 2010 and then now the implementation.”

It was good that this clarification was made for there were speculations that this year’s venue of the MALPHI-LAUT naval exercises was a reaction to the March 2 Reed Bank incident.

Actually the said incident even led the Philippine government to lodged a diplomatic protest against China, asking Beijing to explain why Chinese Navy patrol boats harassed a Philippine-sanctioned oil exploration vessel at the Reed Bank area, a disputed area in the South China Sea west of Palawan province.

The second one is the 27th RP-US Balikatan exercises, another bilateral military exercises that will be conducted from April 5 to 15. Again, this year’s Balikatan will be held in part in the Palawan area.

These two naval exercises that happened and will happen near the Spratly, near the contested areas, in the South China Sea, will somehow add to the already existing “tension” in the disputed area. Other evil-minded individuals might find it as a provocation on the part of China, a very “aggressive” claimant who insisted that the area is theirs.

But due to the existing Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DoC) signed by the members of ASEAN and Beijing, the effort is always there to make the South China Sea a place of peace, cooperation and friendship.

The DOC is meant to diminish the threat of war or a military clash in the South China Sea. It has important significance in creating an environment for cooperation, peace, and stability in the region and in promoting trust, confidence building, and mutual understanding between ASEAN and China. That is why Beijing is very firm on its stand on the bilateral settlements of whatever disputes which concern the islands in the South China Sea.

Whatever has transpired in the planning to include Palawan in this year’s Balikatan exercises is not helpful and actually adding some fuel to the fire, so to speak.

Or, this could be a naval exercise that will address any future conflict in the area in support to what has already been reported of the existing US “military base” in Balabac, Palawan. Added to this is the presence of some 600 US troops stationed in Mindanao for several years now from the US Special Forces as reported by Lt. Col. Randolf Cabangbang, spokesman of the Western Mindanao Command.

Now that this information came directly from our spokesman from the Western Mindanao Command, and according to the news report, the US troops are “deployed in the country under the Mutual Defense Treaty between the two countries,” how come they are using the MDT instead of the VFA(Visiting Forces Agreement)? I smell something fishy here.

This administration had to do something about this before it’s too late. If diplomacy fails, and a regional conflict will start because of wrong foreign policy (that was not corrected from the past administration), it will be a Filifinish. God forbid!

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