WITH West Philippine Sea disputes heating up, the country needs a skillful and patriotic hand to guide it. Any miscalculation or reckless remark could spark hostilities among the parties maneuvering to maintain or gain an advantage in the strategic and resource-rich waterway.
Innocent Filipinos could get caught in an unintended crossfire, especially if they are stuck with a leader showing signs of not being equal to the challenge of handling regional, particularly Chinese, issues while weighed down by domestic problems.
Resorting to shortcuts outside the Constitution and the bounds of law will not work. Cursing and harassing critics and those getting in the way only worsen the situation.
Related to regional issues, even now the waters west of the archipelago bristle with the forces of contending Pacific powers. It is not a coincidence that this week alone:
* China is holding military exercises north of the disputed Spratly Islands and southwest of Panatag (Scarborough) shoal off Zambales. Beijing has announced its cordoning off to marine traffic a 25,500-sq.-km. area from June 29 to July 3.
* The US Navy’s Ronald Reagan carrier strike group and Japan’s Escort Flotilla 1 reportedly happen to be in the South China Sea also.
* The USS Montgomery (LCS 8) arrived Saturday at the Sasa Port in Davao City, its first port visit on its maiden deployment. Advanced technology has enhanced the capabilities of this fourth Independence-class Littoral Combat Ship of the US Navy.
* Talk continues of an American bid to operate the Subic Bay Hanjin Shipyard as a navy repair and maintenance facility. Port operations magnate Enrique K. Razon and three Chinese firms earlier showed interest after Hanjin declared bankruptcy owing $900 million to South Korean creditors.
President Duterte is being criticized for his “unpatriotic” and “unconstitutional” handling of China issues, including its militarizing features in the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone and the near-drowning of 22 Filipinos after their fishing boat was sunk June 9 by a Chinese vessel near Recto Bank off Palawan.
Critics have accused Duterte of violating his oath to “preserve and defend its Constitution, execute its laws…” and not asserting enough the country’s sovereign rights over its EEZ as guaranteed by international and domestic law.
The Sasa port in Davao, where Chinese vessels often dock, saw over the weekend the warship USS Montgomery, escorted by Philippine Coast Guard and navy ships, making its first port call.
Commander Edward A. Rosso, the ship’s captain, said the visit allows them to demonstrate US commitment to maritime security in the region while strengthening ties with a long-time ally. He is no stranger, having served in 1990-1991 at Clark air base in Pampanga. The LCS 8, like many US warships, has several Fil-American crew.
Rosso dismissed speculations that the port call was related to the recent sending to Davao of large Chinese research vessels. “It has nothing to do with the Chinese,” he said. “The US and the Philippines have been in a partnership over the years. Think about the over four million Filipino Americans in the US.”
• Why not US takeover of Hanjin shipyard?
TALK about possible American operation of the idle Hanjin shipyard in Subic Bay, a former US naval base, was reported June 27 in the Stars and Stripes, a newspaper that focuses on matters concerning the US armed forces.
In a report by Seth Robson, the paper said the US Navy is exploring the viability of the Hanjin shipyard as a repair and maintenance facility. Quoting Cmdr. Nate Christensen, the fleet deputy public affairs officer, Robson said:
“Subic Bay was once home to thousands of US sailors and their families before the Navy vacated its bases (in the Philippines) in 1992. It’s still a regular port call for US warships and Marines who practice beach landings nearby in Zambales province.
“The strategic harbor’s importance has grown amid Chinese efforts to build military facilities on artificial islands and claim sovereignty over territory to the west in the South China Sea.”
Robson continued: “Retired Navy Capt. Brian Buzzell, writing in the US Naval Institute News this month, said Hanjin’s financial woes represent a ‘golden chance to return to Subic Bay.’
“Navy freedom-of-navigation operations and Air Force overflights are not deterring Beijing from using asymmetric tactics to gradually secure de facto sovereignty over the South China Sea, he wrote.
“Hanjin’s Subic facility was the fifth-largest shipyard in the world, with more than 30,000 Filipino employees. Before it closed in February it had built 123 large cargo container vessels, bulk carriers and carriers of crude oil, liquefied petroleum gas and mineral ores since 2008, Buzzell wrote.
“The shipyard could help the Navy’s mission in the western Pacific by negating the need to send ships to Pearl Harbor for maintenance or repairs. It could also help the Navy grow its fleet to 355 ships after the closure of many US shipyards in recent decades, he wrote.
“’The confluence of all these factors gives the US Navy a perfect opportunity to return to Subic Bay, except this time as an equal partner respecting the laws and sovereignty of the Philippines and benefitting the Filipino people and economy,’ Buzzell wrote. ‘It also would send a strong message to Beijing that, despite its efforts, the alliance between the US and the Philippines is strong and unbreakable.’
“Patricio Abinales, a Philippines expert at the University of Hawaii, said in a June 13 email that the idea of the Navy returning to Subic Bay sounded good. However, there needs to be more incentive to get the Philippine military on board, he added
“’(The US) must be able to offer… something more than just refurbished Vietnam war Coast Guard cutters,’ he said. ‘The Philippines has been able to buy jets from South Korea. So it is financially in a position to purchase more recent vintage destroyers… If the US is serious about this it needs to offer the Philippines more than just official visits and assurances and excess and old surplus.’”