To peacefully address the maritime security issues in the West Philippine Sea (WPS), General Gilbert Gapay, Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), said Tuesday that he wants to “keep an open line of communication” with their military counterparts from China.

gapay 1 - AFP Chief wants institutionalized communication in WPS with Chinese counterparts
Lt. Gen. Gilbert Gapay
(PHILIPPINE ARMY / MANILA BULLETIN)

In a virtual press briefing, Gapay revealed that the Palawan-based Western Command (WesCom), which has military jurisdiction over the WPS, has started establishing an interaction with the Southern Theater Command of the People’s Liberation Army-Navy (PLAN) of China, the unit which mainly operates in the Philippine territory bordering Beijing’s claims in the South China Sea (SCS).

“If there’s diplomacy being undertaken by the Department of Foreign Affairs, we also have this military diplomacy wherein we have our open line of communication with our counterparts. Even I, myself, was able to talk to the commander of the Southern Theater Command of the Chinese PLAN and we really intend to institutionalize the open line of communication. This is part of our military diplomacy which we are adopting in addressing these issues in the West Philippine Sea,” Gapay told reporters in a briefing hosted by the Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines (FOCAP).

The government is currently engaged in talks with other claimant-countries in the South China Sea to create a Code of Conduct (COC), a legally binding document which seeks to establish how countries should behave in the tense waters to ensure safety and the freedom of navigation.

Gapay said the government has aired its desire before the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) members and China to have the COC fast-tracked so it could be finished by the end of the year or in the first quarter of 2021.

This, he emphasized, is to avert potential hostile actions in the South China Sea especially between China and the United States, two countries which have shown increasing military activities in the tense waters in recent months.

“The situation in the South China Sea remains volatile and uncertain because of certain actions of certain actors, particularly China and the United States,” Gapay said.

This seemed to be in contrast with the recent pronouncement of Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, who said in a budget hearing at the Senate on Monday that the situation in the South China Sea was “stable” and “manageable.”

Despite a 2016 tribunal ruling which rejected China’s claims on a major portion of the South China Sea, Gapay said Beijing has sustained its aggressive actions in taking control of its territorial claims in the region by deploying numerous warships and maritime militias.

Recently, the military chief added that China has fired a missile while conducting a unilateral military exercise in the SCS, which became the subject of a fresh diplomatic protest filed by the Department of Foreign Affairs.

Meanwhile, he said the US has formed the Quad Alliance with Australia, Japan, and India to protect their interests and maintain the South China Sea lanes open and secured, where trillions of dollars in American trades pass through yearly.

“We, with our proximity, and also our interests in the area, are definitely very much affected by these developments,” Gapay said.

Maintaining presence

Gapay said the military has been conducting regular air and naval patrols in the West Philippine Sea to keep its presence in the conflicted region.

“Within the limits of our capability, we are maintaining presence in the West Philippine Sea. We conduct naval and air patrols everyday and it involves seven navy assets, and of course there are 20 aircrafts alternately performing air patrols in the area,” he added.

The Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) also augments the maritime forces of the Philippine Navy in the West Philippine Sea.

The AFP is also improving its facilities in the nine features being occupied by the Philippines in the West Philippine Sea as part of its measures to establish a strong military force in its territories.

“We have troops manning those islands from Pagasa plus eight other small features in the West Philippine Sea. We are building barracks, littoral monitoring stations, and other support facilities for our troops,” Gapay said.

“This is an assertion of our sovereignty and our efforts in protecting and preserving the territorial integrity of our country,” he said. 

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