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Philippines urged to hold joint patrols to keep China at bay

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A CHINESE Coast Guard ship ‘shadowing’ a Philippine vessel on its way to deliver supplies on Dec. 17 to troops stationed at the BRP Sierra Madre, which is grounded in Ayungin Shoal in the West Philippine Sea. — WESTERN COMMAND AFP

By Alyssa Nicole O. Tan, Reporter

A SECURITY expert on Monday accused China of trying to co-opt top Philippine politicians and business leaders to boost its maritime interests, calling for increased cooperation with the US and Australia to deflect the strategy.

Chinese operation is all about propaganda and influencing leadership, Rommel Jude G. Ong, a retired rear admiral and praxis professor at the Ateneo de Manila University’s School of Government, told reporters on the sidelines of a security forum.

They get in touch with “both political or maybe business leaders to promote their own interest,” he said.

The Philippines’ Armed forces has been “very resilient” in resisting China’s playbook, Mr. Ong said. However, their focus only remained on feasibility as political leaders made the decisions.

If China manages to influence the Philippine elite, the Southeast Asian nation’s maritime interests could be jeopardized, he added.

The Chinese Embassy in Manila and Ambassador Huang Xilian did not immediately reply to separate Viber and text messages seeking comments.

“At the national level, Beijing can insinuate itself in decision-making and disrupt the country’s security posture in the West Philippine Sea,” Mr. Ong separately said in a statement from Stratbase ADR Institute, referring to areas of the South China Sea within the country’s exclusive economic zone.

“To prevent war with China, [ex-President Rodrigo R.] Duterte did not allow the navy to conduct patrols in the exclusive economic zone, secure vessels surveying the service contract areas off Palawan and participate in bilateral patrols in the West Philippine Sea with the US Navy,” he added.

Mr. Duterte led a foreign policy pivot to China away from the US when he took office in 2016.

Less than a year before he stepped down, he changed his tone by affirming a 2016 decision by United Nations-backed arbitral tribunal that voided China’s claim to more than 80% of the South China Sea based on a 1940s map.

‘HIGHLY UNTAPPED’The Permanent Court of Arbitration based in the Hague upheld the Philippines’ rights to its exclusive economic zone in the disputed waterway.

The United States or Australia, Mr. Ong said, could be “encouraged to take a lead role in discussing ways to mitigate foreign interference in the guise of co-optation of political, business and military elites, strategic corruption, disinformation and cyber-warfare.”

The Philippines should deploy patrol ships in the South China Sea in tandem with the US and other security partners, he added.

“This conveys a message of solidarity among like-minded countries with a stake in a peaceful South China Sea and contests the legality of China’s excessive territorial claims,” Mr. Ong said.

“We need to work with other countries because capabilities are only finite as they are restricted by our resources, our budget,” he said. “Necessarily, we partner with other countries and of course, joint patrol is one option.”

Sea control has become increasingly necessary, he added, citing “coercive activities” occurring near the Second Thomas Shoal and Sandy Cay.

The security expert noted that while Chinese maritime forces remain in these areas, newer ships are deployed elsewhere.

“This might be the appropriate time to concentrate these resources in the Kalayaan Island Group, where their presence could contest, if not eliminate, the tactical advantage enjoyed by China’s maritime forces on the ground,” he said.

“The ideal solution is to construct a permanent concrete outpost to replace the BRP Sierra Madre,” he said. “Ayungin Shoal should not fall into Chinese hands — that would be a political and military debacle.”

Richard J. Heydarian, a senior lecturer at the University of the Philippines Asian Center, belittled the so-called direct communication between China and the Philippines, which he said has failed given numerous incidents involving Filipino fishermen and the Chinese Navy.

“It’s all about better communication… except history shows that doesn’t work,” he told the forum. “Having good communication channels is necessary but not sufficient.”

Mr. Heydarian said the Philippines should maximize its partnership with Australia.

“The Philippine-Australia bilateral relationship is both promising yet highly untapped,” he said in the Stratbase statement. “Manila has often prioritized relations with Washington, Tokyo, and more recently, Beijing.”

The Philippines-Australia Status of Visiting Forces Agreement has given both countries a robust counter-terrorism and conflict-resolution mechanism in the past decade. But they should step up bilateral cooperation, Mr. Heydarian said.

“Canberra should expand its capacity-building assistance, especially in the realm of infrastructure connectivity and climate change resilience in Southeast Asia… and the Philippines in particular,” he said.

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