Manila Bulletin

US just a call away if PH needs help to ‘remove’ Chinese vessels in WPS

- By ROY C. MABASA and VANNE ELAINE P. TERRAZOLA

The United States is just waiting for the Philippine­s to ask for its help in removing or asking the Chinese vessels that are moored in the country’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) to leave, the top Filipino

diplomat in Washington, D.C. said on Tuesday.

In a pre-recorded interview with Malacañang reporters, Philippine Ambassador to the United States Jose Manuel

Romualdez said the militaries from both sides have been working “round the clock” to ensure there is freedom of navigation amid the latest series of incursions of Chinese vessels in areas within the country’s EEZ.

“At the same time, the United States is obviously waiting for us to call them if we need their assistance in removing or asking the vessels that are parked in our area of responsibi­lity or economic zone. And both our Philippine Navy and the US Navy are working on this,” Romualdez said when asked if Washington has any commitment to Manila to provide assistance in securing the West Philippine Sea.

Early this month, a US aircraft carrier strike group led by the USS Theodore Roosevelt entered the South China Sea from the Strait of Malacca as the Philippine­s was protesting against the presence of more than 240 Chinese vessels in Julian Felipe Reef (Whitsun Reef).

The Philippine­s has filed several diplomatic protests against Beijing’s deployment of what many believe as “maritime militia” vessels in and around Julian Felipe Reef, an area located about 175 nautical miles of Bataraza town in Palawan.

On Monday, President Duterte said he would only send warships to “stake a claim” in the disputed West Philippine Sea if China would start mining for oil and other resources from the area.

“I am addressing myself to the Chinese government. We want to remain friends. We want to share whatever it is. I already told you, the Chinese government: I’m not so much interested now in fishing. I don’t think there’s enough fish really to quarrel about,” Duterte said in his regular “Talk to the People” address.

‘Hoist PH flag, not white flag of surrender'

At the Senate, Sen. Grace Poe said that asserting a country's sovereignt­y does not equate to declaring a war against another country who claims ownership over its territory.

Poe shared the view that the Philippine­s cannot afford to give in to China's aggression in the West Philippine Sea (WPS), saying: “We must protect what rightfully belongs to our people.”

“Asserting our sovereignt­y, protecting our fisherfolk, and managing our natural resources are not a declaratio­n of war,” she added.

Poe issued the statement after President Duterte conceded that “nothing will happen” if the Philippine­s would counter the patrols of Chinese military vessels in the WPS, “because we are not in possession of the area”.

Duterte also said the issues in the WPS “remains a question forever, until such time that, you know, we can take it back”.

“We should raise the Philippine flag in our territory, not the white flag of surrender," Poe, however, said.

She said the Philippine­s is “not out of options” in asserting its sovereignt­y over its exclusive economic zone (EEZ).

“At the very least, we can explore all options in asserting our sovereignt­y including seeking the aid of neighborin­g countries and allies. We should bring more internatio­nal attention to the issue,” she raised.

Aside from tapping its internatio­nal allies, Poe said the Philippine government must also be more vocal in calling out the Chinese incursions in the WPS.

“By merely being critical of the massing up of foreign vessels in the West Philippine Sea, we’ve already seen movement among our allies. More Filipinos are braving the frontlines to expose the situation in our waters,” she said.

“With the stronger stance displayed by the DFA (Department of Foreign Affairs) and the DND (Department of National Defense) on the matter, the number of vessels in the area has been reduced,” she also recalled.

Senator Panfilo Lacson also thought that Duterte's statement might imply that the Philippine­s is giving up its territoria­l claims against China.

During the presidenti­al campaigns in 2016, Duterte boldly vowed to sail the WPS, even using a jetski, to plant the Philippine flag to assert the country's sovereignt­y amid China's sweeping claims over the South China Sea.

Meanwhile, Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. disclosed that there is “one little item left” in the ongoing negotiatio­n between the Philippine­s and the United States regarding the fate of the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA).

“We’re almost there. One little item left,” Locsin said in a tweet.

Locsin made this disclosure shortly after Philippine Ambassador to the US Jose Manuel Romualdez said he sees the end of the negotiatio­n “within the next couple of weeks” and prepare for the submission of the final documents to President Duterte.

“We are hoping that this will be all resolved within the next couple of weeks so that we can finalize and present to Secretary Locsin and the President,” he said.

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