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Mario J. Mallari

China challenges security execs’ plane

Saturday, 22 April 2017 00:00 Published in Headlines


Friction again sparked between the Philippines and China yesterday after the group of Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana and Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) Chief of Staff Eduardo Año flew to a disputed South China Sea island yesterday brushing off a challenge by the Chinese military while asserting the Philippines’ territorial claim to the strategic region.
“This is just a normal visit within our territory, which we believe and we know is (our) territory,” Lorenzana told reporters who accompanied him on the brief trip.
China claims most of the South China Sea, including Thitu island which Lorenzana visited that the Philippines calls Pag-asa Island.
The visit was held after officials said they were investigating a reported Chinese vessel attack on Filipino fishing boat in the disputed waters.
A Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) report saida group of Filipino fishermen had accused China’s coastguard of shooting at their vessel.

The PCG said being investigated was the reported attack on the Princess Johann boat, which the crew said occurred near a Chinese-occupied section of the Spratly archipelago last March 27. There were no casualties during the incident, authorities added.
“[Princess Johann] was reportedly fired upon seven times by a Chinese speedboat with seven Chinese coastguards on board,” a PCG statement said.
The armed speedboat approached the Filipino vessel after it dropped anchor about 3.7 km off the Chinese side of the Union Banks atoll, it said.
“The crew hid and eventually cut their anchor line and fled the area,” the statement added.
If confirmed the incident would be the first hostile episode in nearly a year involving the two countries, which have seen warming relations since President Rodrigo Duterte was elected in May, 2016.
The Chinese Coast Guard challenged the military transport planes carrying Lorenzana and Año to Pag-asa Island yesterday morning.
Pilots of the Airbus Military C-295 and Lockheed C-130 “Hercules” cargo aircraft received the challenge from Subi Reef, a Chinese-owned feature, some 30 to 40 nautical miles away from Pagasa Island.
“We replied that we are flying over Philippine territory,” Lorenzana said when asked for details regarding the Chinese challenge.
Lorenzana added that the challenge is automatic and part of the protocol of any country claiming jurisdiction on particular area especially when ships and aircraft pass through it.
Aside from the challenge, nothing untoward happened, Lorenzana stressed.
Other ranking officials aboard the two military aircraft were  Army commander Lt. Gen. Glorioso Miranda and Western Command head Lt. Gen. Raul del Rosario.
In recent years Beijing has been building up disputed reefs into artificial islands, including on Subi Reef about 26 kilometers (14 nautical miles) from Pag-asa Island, which can house military facilities.
     Island buildup eyed
Lorenzana said construction would start “within the next few weeks” for a quay on Pag-asa where construction materials will be landed for repairs on an existing airstrip on the largest of nine Philippine-garrisoned outcrops in the Spratly archipelago.
Lorenzana also announced that the Navy Seabees will start construction of a beach ramp on Pag-asa in the coming weeks.
Lorenzana said the construction of the ramp will pave the way for the improvement of other facilities in the area as ordered by Mr. Duterte.
“Within the next few weeks, they (Navy Seabees) will be here,” said Lorenzana.
The defense chief said  the government has allotted P1.6 billion for improvement projects on Pagasa —the seat of the Kalayaan municipal government of Palawan.
Lorenzana said that the beaching ramp is expected to be completed by July to provide access to construction materials an equipment.
Among the projects in the pipeline is the improvement of the runway which has not undergone any repair since its establishment in the 1970s.
Improvements on the barracks on Marine forces stationed in the West Philippine Sea are  also among the priorities.
Lorenzana stressed that the Philippines is now very far behind China and Vietnam in terms of facilities in the occupied areas in the West PHilippine Sea despite the fact that Pagasa Island has been imhabited  by Filipinos since 1970.
“We should have done this before, said Lorenzana, as he maintained that yesterday’s visit was in compliance to Duterte’s directive for him to inspect the facilities on Pagasa Island.
Lorenzana said that he expects protests from Beijing when the improvement work starts.
He added that the President himself is very interested in visiting Pagasa Island but has postponed the plan in the future due to the protest from Chinese government.
“He (Duterte) wants to stay overnight and sleep with the troops,” said Lorenzana.
He said the government also plans to develop Pagasa Island into a tourist destination—citing the white beaches in the area.
Lorenzana said that the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Reaources (BFAR) also wants to put up facilities there.
During the flight, the Chinese challenged the Lorenzana’s flight four times but the defense chief dismissed  such acts between Philippine and Chinese authorities.
“That’s automatic, their protocol, procedural...we also replied that we are flying over Philippine territory...there was no untoward incident,” said Lorenzana.
Yesterday’s visit was only the second for Lorenzana who is a retired Army general.
Reversing the course set by predecessor Benigno Aquino, Duterte has sought to improve his nation’s relations with Beijing by adopting a non-confrontational approach over their competing claims in the strategically vital waters believed to sit atop huge oil and gas reserves.
Lorenzana however said Duterte was not backing down from his orders for the military to reinforce its installations in the Spratlys, and has alloted P1.6 billion for these.
He said both China and Vietnam have long been fortifying their own garrisons on nearby outcrops.
“We all know that China is the most powerful country in our neighborhood, it is  economically powerful, also militarily,” Lorenzana said.
“We are trying manage the issue and talk to them... settle this dispute in the South China Sea.”
As Lorenzana flew to Thitu, the Philippine coast guard announced a group of Filipino fishermen have accused China’s coast guard of shooting at their vessel in another section of the Spratlys.
     Solons blame GMA
An opposition lawmaker yesterday took the cudgels in defending  Aquino from blame in the controversy over the West Philippine Sea.
The lawmakers were unanimous in saying that the South China Sea mess started with the Arroyo government.
The lawmakers made the pronouncements after former President and now Pampanga Rep Gloria Macapagal Arroyo blamed President Aquino for triggering the aggressive stance of China that led to the consteuction of military structures in the WPS.
According to Akbayan party-list Rep. Tom Villarin, if anyone is to blame for the mess it is Mrs Arroyo.
Mrs Arroyo was responsible for China’s entry in the 200 mile exclusive economic zone by signing a Joint Marine Seismic Undertaking (JMSU) with China in 2004.
Because of the JMSU, China has the opportunity to explore reefs, atolls and islands that are within the country’s territory.
The lawmakers said that the signjng of the JMSU was made in exchange for the botched North Rail and national broadband network with ZTE agreements.
Former Bayan Muna party-list Rep. Neri Javier Colmenares maintained that the JMSU was used by China to learn about mineral deposits in the country’s waters.
“In fact the Arroyo administration never protested even when Chinese ships aggressively cruised the seas near Palawan in 2007 when it was well outside the South China Sea and the JMSU area.  It is sad  that the government is to blame for the exchange deal over some overpriced and anomalous contracts,” Colmenares said.
“China became more aggressive after confirming the presence of resources through the JMSU. President  Arroyo stayed silent despite the fact that China used the information it gathered for its benefit alone,” Colmenares added.  

Gerry Baldo

Officials of the Philippine and Russian navies yesterday cited the benefits for both militaries of the routine port calls by Russian warships in Manila.
Yesterday, guided missile cruiser Varyag and large sea tanker Pechenga of the Russian Navy’s Pacific Fleet arrived at Pier 15 in Manila’s South Harbor for a goodwill visit.
At a briefing, Capt. Alexsei Ulyanenko, commanding officer of Varyag, said the visit is “very important” for the Russians.
“This courtesy call is very important to us,” said Ulyanenko, through an interpreter.
For his part, Capt. Leo Ramon Miado, of the Philippine Navy Fleet, said  the goodwill visit will provide an opportunity for personnel of both navies to interact.
“It’s a training opportunity…we can also view their technology as part of our modernization,”  Miado said.
It will be recalled that President Duterte has ordered the Armed Forces of the Philippines to consider Russian military equipment for its ongoing modernization program.
On Saturday, the Russian warship will be open for a shipboard tour — scheduled from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. while a concert by the Russian Cultural Dancers and Music Ensemble will be held the following day at the Luneta Park.
Earlier, Russian ship Boris Botuma, along with its sister tanker, had also visited Manila for a routine port call.                 

Troops foil Abu seajacking attempt in Zambo

Thursday, 20 April 2017 00:00 Published in Headlines

Government forces have thwarted an attempt by suspected Abu Sayyaf group to intercept another cargo vessel along the seas of Zamboanga del Norte on Tuesday, the military’s Western Mindanao Command (Wesmincom) said yesterday.
Report said cargo vessel m/v Anabelle was plying the sea waters of Siocon from Liloy both in Zamboanga del Norte province enroute to Zamboanga City when it sounded a distress call around 8 a.m.

The vessel reported that three unidentified speed boats with undetermined armed men aboard were “seemingly attacking them and attempting to board” the cargo ship.
Immediately, air and naval assets under the Wesmincom were dispatched to respond.
Capt. Jo-ann Petinglay, spokesman of Wesmincom, said all available assets of the Naval Forces Western Mindanao (NFWM) were alerted while two Air Force helicopters were deployed.
The captain of the cargo vessel said the pursuing motorized boats immediately left the area upon sensing the arrival of the Navy ships and the helicopters.
m/v Anabelle was then escorted by a Navy patrol craft  to Zamboanga City while continuously being monitored by the Littoral Monitoring Station Pilas until it was able to dock safely.
Lt. Gen. Carlito Galvez Jr., Wesmincom chief, said the foiled seajacking was another clear proof of the military’s unrelenting resolve to address piracy and kidnapping in the area.
“The moment we receive calls for help, Wesmincom will be fast on our tracks to foil any attempts of terrorism or piracy,” he stressed.
“Our sailors plying these waters should be vigilant all the time since these threats will be trying to seajack vessels and conduct atrocities. It is only when all of us will do our share of fighting this common enemy that we will surely defeat and disallow the bandits to continue sowing fear and terror in our seas and our communities,” he added.
For his part, Rear Adm. Rene Medina, commander of the Naval Forces Western Mindanao, vowed the command’s readiness to respond to any emergency calls within its jurisdiction.
“Our naval assets are all ready to render necessary assistance to deter seajacking and abduction at seas,” said Medina.
Only last Feb. 22, Navy ships were also able to foil an attempt to seajack mv Dong Hae Star by suspected Abu Sayyaf Group in Tawi-Tawi. The bandits immediately aborted their plan upon sensing the arrival of the naval ships and air assets.
The Abu Sayyaf group is currently holding more than 20 hostages, most of them crew members of various ships intercepted along the high seas of Tawi Tawi and tri-boundaries of the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia.
Over the past year, the Abu Sayyaf has been expanding its activities from its main Jolo base in the south where the military launched an offensive last year.
Its boat-riding gunmen have been boarding commercial and fishing vessels and abducting dozens of foreign crew members.
Zachary Abuza, a Southeast Asian security expert at the National War College in the United States, told Agence France Presse the Abu Sayyaf had been regularly staging long-range kidnapping raids, including in Malaysia.
“They clearly benefit from the woefully inadequate maritime capabilities of the Philippine Navy and coast guard,” Abuza said.  
“The amount of territory is very large, and these guys are moving on very small fast craft that blend in.”  
P1-M bounty
Meanwhile, President Rodrigo Duterte has offered a P1-million reward for each member of the Abu Sayyaf who escaped the joint police and military operation in Bohol earlier this month.
“I have a P1-million offer, per person. Even just a tip, give it to the police and military, no questions asked,” he said during a chance interview in Tagbilaran, Bohol.
The Chief Executive also raised the possibility of empowering civilians to carry arms for them to effectively run after the terrorists.
“I intend to also arm the civilians and I will include the civilians, if you kill, you do not have to worry, you just go to the police and make a report and state your truth and you won’t have any problem, I’ll take care of you. I’ll pardon you,” he said.
Mr. Duterte, however, stressed he still has to consult local government officials about the matter.
“I’m not at liberty because of the talk to the local officials. There are matters of objections so I would like to hear first what would be in such an institution where we arm the civilians,” he said.
Moreover, the Commander-in-Chief said the day of reckoning has arrived for the terrorists, stressing he has now ordered state security forces to finish the Abu Sayyaf for good.
“I (have) ordered the military and the police to finish the game,” Mr. Duterte said.
He also warned that he would not hesitate to take his “last option” which is to invade the terrorist-infested areas of Jolo, Sulu, should the terror threat spin out of control.
“I hope we wouldn’t reach the point where we have to choose the last option. But if worse comes to worst, I will order the invasion of Jolo,” he said.
State forces and the Abu Sayyaf first clashed in Bohol on April 11. It resulted in the killing of four government troops and five Abu Sayyaf terrorists, including Muammar “Abu Rami” Askali, a sub-leader of the bandit group.
The military said  Askali was behind a 2015 raid on the southern island resort of Samal in which four tourists — two Canadians, a Norwegian and a Filipina — were snatched.
His group also attacked a German couple on a yacht at sea last year, murdering the woman on board and taking the man hostage. He was later killed.

Ted Tuvera with AFP


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