Key attention on the Philippines at Asian security summit

Ava Patricia C. Avila, Justin Goldman

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Rising tensions indicate the need for the Philippines to continue to pursue capabilities to build a 'minimum credible defense'

'SHANGRI-LA DIALOGUE.' A Gurkha soldier, part of a Gurkha elite contingent of the Singapore Police force, stands guard outside the Shangri-la Hotel, the venue of the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) 13th Asia Security Summit, in Singapore on May 30, 2014. Photo by How Hwee Young/EPA

With a keynote speech from Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, the 13th annual IISS Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore began on May 30 with a strong argument for the centrality of the rule of law to navigating the maritime security challenges so central to the Asia-Pacific region.

While Philippine Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin addressed last year’s Shangri-La Dialogue during the plenary session on “New Trends in the Asia-Pacific Region,” this year there was no Philippine speaking role during the plenary sessions, but the country remained critical to the proceedings, including multiple mentions in Mr. Abe’s speech.  

Mr. Abe spoke about his 2013 travels to all 10 ASEAN countries where he found counterparts who shared his commitment to valuing the rule of law. He explained how “Japan will offer its utmost support for efforts by ASEAN countries to ensure the security of the seas and skies and rigorously maintain freedom of navigation and over flight.”

While mentioning the decision to provide 10 new patrol boats to the Philippine Coast Guard as well as support for maritime law enforcement agencies in Vietnam and Indonesia, he stressed how “when hard assets are sent out from Japan, experts also follow, together with instruction in the relevant and technical skills.”  

The IISS Shangri-La Dialogue presents an important opportunity for officials to interact with numerous counterparts, with several bilateral delegation meetings taking place. According to Philippine Defense Assistant Secretary for Strategic Assessment Raymund Quilop, we continue “enhancing existing defense partnerships and alliances even while we pursue additional modalities of cooperation with other partners.”   

In the first plenary session, US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel also covered the maritime challenges in regional waters, with direct criticism of China, stating they have “restricted access to Scarborough Reef, put pressure on the long-standing Philippine presence at the Second Thomas Shoal, begun land reclamation activities at multiple locations, and moved an oil rig into disputed waters near the Paracel Islands.” 

He reiterated the emphasis of Mr. Abe on opposition to any nation that would restrict over flight or freedom of navigation, highlighting that this concern emanates from both military and civilian vessels.  

Just as Japan highlighted capacity building efforts with the Philippines, Mr. Hagel spoke about support to the Armed Forces of the Philippines to strengthen aviation and maritime capabilities. Such efforts to enhance partner capacity were taking place the final week of May in Manila as the US Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA) conducted a National Coast Watch System (NCWS) Operational Planning Workshop with Philippine officials. 

While building upon past engagements such as the May 2013 Table Top Exercise on Operational Planning, this training is part of the contract awarded to Raytheon Company by DTRA in July 2013 that includes the design and construct of the National Coast Watch Center which began in April with planned completion in 2015.  Under Executive Order 57, this will be established in and headed up by the Philippine Coast Guard, tasked to “gather, consolidate, synthesize, and disseminate information relevant to maritime security.”  

Addressing disputes

Mr. Abe laid out 3 principles on the rule of law at sea calling for countries to make and clarify respective claims based on international law, to not use force or coercion in pursuing these claims, as well as seeking to settle disputes by peaceful means. 

He praised the recently reached agreement between the Philippines and Indonesia that resolves their overlapping exclusive economic zones through a maritime border accord, calling it “an excellent case in point that truly embodies the rule of law.”

Additionally, he spoke about the Philippines’ recent filing of its “memorial” to the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea Treaty saying “my government strongly supports the efforts by the Philippines calling for a resolution to the dispute in the South China Sea that is truly consistent with these three principles.” 

This issue was also covered extensively by the Australian Minister for Defense, Senator David Johnston, another partner country involved in training and boosting the capacity of the Philippines in the maritime domain. 

In September 2013, the Philippine Navy sent its initial contingent to train in Australia under the Status of Visiting Forces Agreement that was ratified by the Philippine Senate in 2012 where they also took part in the Australian International Fleet Review. 

Senator Johnston addressed the dialogue stating that “Australia does not take a position on competing claims in the South China Sea, but we have a legitimate interest in the maintenance of peace and stability, respect for international law, unimpeded trade and freedom of navigation.” 

During the question and answer period of this plenary, entitled “Managing Strategic Tensions,” a question was raised about the themes in his speech that he had in common with those of Mr. Abe and Mr. Hagel. He responded, “the answer is very simply because those principles are, we see, irrefutably, soundly based in international law.”      

General Phung Quang Thanh, the Vietnamese Minister of National Defense certainly came to Singapore with maritime concerns as the $1 billion deepwater rig owned by state-run China National Offshore Oil Company Group continues its operations in close proximity to the Paracel Islands, with incidents nearby between vessels from both countries leading to the sinking of a Vietnamese fishing boat. 

He explained Vietnam’s controlled actions saying they have “exercised a high-level of restraint, not used airplanes, frigates, battleships. We only used vessels of fisheries surveillance forces, coastguards and fishing boats in coordination with the law enforcement forces to protect national sovereignty.” 

While nothing concrete has been done in terms of pursuing international arbitration both General Thanh in response to questions as well as Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung  in his recent visit to Manila spoke about Vietnamese efforts to examine their legal options in order to address this concern.  

Criticizing Abe

While awaiting his opportunity on the final day of the summit to provide a Chinese viewpoint, Lieutenant General Wang Guanzhong of the People’s Liberation Army, who serves as Deputy Chief of the General Staff Department certainly did not share the perspective of his numerous counterparts from across the Asia-Pacific. 

Departing from his prepared remarks, he spoke how “given the two speeches made by Mr. Abe and Mr. Hagel and if we look at the actions they have taken, we have to ask: who is actually making provocations and create (sic) troubles, disputes and differences concerning territory, sovereignty, maritime rights and interests, China has never taken the first step to provoke troubles.” 

China certainly came into the summit amid rising tensions, with Chinese and Japanese jets flying in close proximity to each other over the East China Sea just days ahead of the meeting.  

In criticizing Mr. Abe’s plans for an increased role in regional security, General Wang remarked that “we will never accept provocation by others under the pretext of ‘positive pacifism’ that stirs up region tension for their selfish interests.”  

Maritime disputes appear to remain central to regional security agenda in the Asia-Pacific since those with competing claims are still far apart on fundamental aspects of the disputes, a strong indicator of the need for the Philippines to continue to pursue capabilities to build a “minimum credible defense.”  – 

Ava Patricia C. Avila is a PhD Student at Cranfield University and Justin Goldman is an Associate Research Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University 


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