BUZZ PAGASA ISLANDS PRIOR TO BALIKATAN
Two unidentified aircraft, likely jet planes, buzzed through the vicinities of Pagasa Islands in the disputed South China Sea, at a high speed and altitude last Thursday, a day before the start of a joint military exercise between Philippine and United States troops, belated reports reaching Camp Aguinaldo said yesterday.
Col. Edgard Arevalo, spokesman for the Navy on West Philippine Sea (South China Sea) issue, said that the two unidentified aircraft were reported sighted by elements of the Naval Forces West (Navforwest) at around 9:50 a.m. passing over the vicinity of Pagasa Islands “at high speed and high altitude.”
Arevalo said that the military failed to identify the aircraft.
Last Friday, top officials from the United States and Philippines formally started a joint military exercise which will involve 8,000 troops from both countries and dozens of military assets, including a squadron of F/A-18 Hornet fighter jets.
Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) chief Gen. Emmanuel Bautista declared the opening of the nine-day military exercise dubbed “Balikatan 2013” at the AFP headquarters in Metro Manila, the country’s capital region.
“(They were) too fast and too high for us to be able to really identify,” Arevalo said. He added there was no subsequent effort also to identify the aircraft.
“For processing and proper disposition, whenever there are (incidents) like this we are reporting them, we are recording them and then if there is pattern that we notice then maybe we can have a clue,” Arevalo said.
While he could not conclusively say that the aircraft were foreign, Arevalo expressed belief that these did not come from the Philippine Air Force (PAF) which does not have any air assets capable of the monitored speed.
“We cannot say (whether they are foreign aircraft) but most probably because that report, I mean the sighting was also seen by our Air Force and Coast Guard in the area, if they also reported it…if those were ours then the Air Force should know it but they themselves also reported so probably they are not ours,” Arevalo said.
Arevalo added that the sighting report was immediately passed to the Navy headquarters in Manila for processing and proper disposition.
“The Philippine Navy remains vigilant and committed to its mandate of securing the country’s maritime domain, notwithstanding limitations in its naval assets that continue to conduct sovereignty patrols in the West Philippine Sea,” Arevalo said.
Pagasa Islands is part of the disputed Kalayaan Islands Group or the Spratlys in the West Philippine Sea being claimed by the Philippines, China, Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam.
Brig. Gen. Richard Simcock, deputy commander of the US Marine Corps Forces in the Pacific, said the annual military exercise is meant to improve “military operations and to advance regional security operations.”
“As you know, ‘balikatan’ means shoulder to shoulder. American forces will be shoulder to shoulder and will work alongside with the dedicated men and women of the AFP to train and improve our skills and readiness,” said Simcock.
This year’s Balikatan exercise will give emphasis to humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, on top of actual military training. Crow Valley, Camp O’ Donnell, Subic Bay, and Fort Magsaysay in northern Philippines will serve as venues for the exercise.
The joint military exercise will also feature a roundtable discussion focusing on disaster response. Countries in the Asia- Pacific including Australia, Cambodia, China, South Korea, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, and Thailand have been invited to join the roundtable discussion with the Philippines and the United States.
AFP officials said this year’s Balikatan exercise marks another milestone in the long-standing relations between the Philippines and the United States. The exercise is the biggest among the military training activities between the two countries and is based on the Philippines-U.S. Mutual Defense Treaty of 1951.
Taiwan also said it plans to expand a pier on one of the disputed Spratly islands, officials said, as the rest of the claimants beef up military deployment in the South China Sea.
The Coast Guard Administration has budgeted Tw$19 million ($640,000) to evaluate the project, which is part of its efforts to boost defence capabilities in the disputed area this year.
“The fund will mainly be used to do an environmental impact study near Taiping Island,” a coast guard official said.
The fortified island, under Taiwan’s control, is the largest in the disputed South China Sea area.
The United Evening News said the expanded pier would allow port calls by the coast guard’s 2,000-tonne frigates. The current pier provides facilities only to small patrol boats.
Taiwan built a 1,150-metre (3,800-foot) runway on Taiping in mid-2006, despite protests from the other countries with claims to the disputed island group.
In an apparent reference to territorial disputes, Chinese President Xi Jinping said while China would “properly handle differences and frictions with relevant countries”, it would continue to press its claims.
“On the basis of firmly upholding its sovereignty, security and territorial integrity, China will maintain good relations with its neighbours and overall peace and stability in our region,” he said.
Beijing and Tokyo are at odds over small, uninhabited islands in the East China Sea administered by Japan but also claimed by China.
China is also engaged in disputes with some Southeast Asian countries including the Philippines and Vietnam over islands and reefs in the South China Sea.
Touted as an Asian version of the World Economic Forum, the three-day Boao gathering has brought together leaders in government, business and academia in Asia and other continents every year since 2001 to discuss pressing issues in the region and the rest of the world.
Among political and financial leaders at this year’s event are Myanmar President Thein Sein, International Monetary Fund managing director Christine Lagarde, Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto and Yasuo Fukuda, a former Japanese prime minister.
China is to open disputed South China Sea islands up to tourism this month, state media reported, a move likely to inflame a long-running territorial row with its neighbors.
The plans to allow tourists to visit the Paracel Islands before the May Day holiday is the latest stage in Beijing’s development of the territory, which has previously angered Vietnam and caused concern in Washington.
Vietnam and China have a longstanding territorial row over the Paracel Islands. Hanoi last month accused a Chinese vessel of firing on one of its fishing boats which had sailed in disputed waters in the area.
The plan to allow cruise tours follows rapid development of infrastructure in a new city — Sansha — along with the establishment of an army garrison on one of the Paracels last year.
Tourists can only visit the islands on cruise ships as the hotels are inadequate, news agency Xinhua said, citing Tan Li, executive vice governor of the southern province of Hainan.
Tan was speaking on Saturday at the Boao Forum for Asia, which is being held in Hainan.
The report quoted a tourist company as saying its cruise ship was ready to take almost 2,000 passengers on a tour of the islands.
“The tour prices will be relatively high due to the high costs of tourism infrastructure construction,” said Huang Huaru, general manager of the Hainan-based agency.
Officials said last month they were exploring tourist possibilities for Sansha, according to Xinhua, but no time frame was set.
Beijing claims most of the South China Sea, which is home to vital shipping lanes and substantial proven and estimated oil and gas deposits.
It has occupied the Paracels, known as Xisha in Chinese, since a brief war with South Vietnam in 1974.
Taiwan and ASEAN members the Philippines, Brunei and Malaysia all have rival claims to parts of the sea, while the United States is also watching China’s increased assertiveness closely.