Can PHL-US joint patrols scale back China’s moves in Kalayaan, WPS zone?

This file photo taken shows a Philippine Coast Guard ship (R) sailing past a Chinese coast guard ship near Scarborough shoal, in the South China Sea.

THE government’s announcement of a “restart” for joint maritime patrols with the United States has raised questions, including whether it could stop China’s incursions in the Kalayaan Island Group (KIG) and West Philippine Sea (WPS).

While the country’s new maritime security arrangement with its treaty partner poses the greatest challenge yet to Beijing’s presence in disputed waters, the question remains: can it halt China’s march in those maritime waters?

For some legislators and even the Department of National Defense, the joint maritime patrols will cease, if not limit Beijing’s unchallenged intrusions in the KIG and WPS, and revert the use of its vast waters to Filipino fishermen.

“Senator [Francis] Escudero also emphasized that joint patrols would help reduce encroachments and acts of harassment in the area,” Defense Secretary Carlito Galvez Jr. noted in a statement, as he recalled reactions to the agreement announced in last week’s visit of US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin III.

It will also challenge China’s presence in Scarborough Shoal near Zambales, whose control it wrested from the Philippines in 2012 following a standoff. Beijing has sealed off the shoal from Filipinos who have made it their traditional fishing grounds for centuries.

The agreement on joint maritime patrols was the most important arrangement so far that the country has notched with the US in years, returning US-Philippines defense relations to a significant level.

The joint patrols, seen to counter China’s presence not only in the South China Sea, but more importantly in the KIG and WPS, have been dangled to the Philippines for years by the US, which encouraged a collective patrol, even among Asean claimant states.

The US also pushed for joint maritime patrols with the Philippines, and even the lesser joint maritime exercises in the South China Sea during the term of former President Rodrigo Duterte where China’s activities in the KIG and WPS were at an intense level. The proposals were turned down by the former president.

During the term of the late former President Benigno Aquino III, the government toyed with the idea of forging a Status of Visiting Forces Agreement among Asean states, still to counter China in the South China Sea.

Galvez, viewing the security assurance and even economic benefits of the joint patrols for Filipino fishermen, said it was the mandate of the DND to “secure and defend our sovereignty and sovereign rights such as the freedom of our people to fish in our own waters.”

“We also share the vision of like-minded nations in ensuring freedom of navigation and a peaceful, stable and free Indo-Pacific,” he said.

“As a member of the international community, we have a responsibility to protect the global commons in order to prevent humanity from constricting itself by ensuring that vital sea lines of communications are kept open,” he added.

Besides joint patrols, the DND said it has agreed to designate four more additional locations for rotating American troops under the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA).

The joint maritime patrols will be the first in so many years for the US and the Philippines, as nothing of such activity has ever been conducted from the time of Aquino up to Duterte, as even admitted by a defense official.

The defense official said his only recollection of an activity with the US was that of a passing exercise (PASSEX) in 2014, which is a customary routine exercise given for a passing navy vessel.

The joint US-Philippines patrols were among the key and important recommendations by a US private group, whose members are composed of former government officials, security experts and members of think tanks, to the administration of President Joe Biden as America seeks to revitalize its moribund bilateral relations with the Philippines, which was strained during Duterte’s term.

Another recommendation by the group, the holding of a “2+2” meeting between Washington and Manila, has also been accepted, as DND announced during Austin’s visit.

The only proposal yet to be fully implemented between the two countries is the sharing of information, given the US’ apprehension months ago that information that it will be sharing to Manila may not be handled carefully.

Image credits: Bloomberg


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