MANILA, Philippines – Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana plans to visit troops in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea), a gesture that is meant to assure the public that the Philippines is not neglecting the country's maritime claims amid warmer ties with China.
"We continue our maritime and aerial patrols there. We are also taking care of the troops assigned there. One of the plans of our Secretary of National Defense is to visit our troops there, in his convenient available time. We will make sure that we are maintaining our presence in the West Philippine Sea and ensure the integrity of our territory," Armed Forces chief of staff General Eduardo Año said on Monday, January 9, in Filipino.
The visit has not been scheduled. "I am awaiting what the navy or the air force would recommend as I may go there by ship or plane," Lorenzana told Rappler in a text message.
The last time the Philippines made a high-profile visit to the West Philippine Sea was in May 2015 when then Armed Forces chief General Gregorio Catapang brought local and international media to Pag-Asa Island at the height of tension between Manila and Beijing over the international arbitration case that was filed and later generally won by the Philippines. (WATCH: AFP chief tours disputed South China Sea)
China back then protested the visit of the Philippine military chief to the only maritime feature in the area that is occupied by civilians, about a hundred Filipinos who moved in mostly from mainland Palawan.
Año is confident that Lorenzana's planned visit will not anger China, citing warmer ties with the military superpower despite the continued presence of its ships inside the Philippine's exclusive economic zone (EEZ).
"Ang makapag-up ng tension diyan kung meron kang ginagawang (What would escalate tension are activities that will constitute) military aggressive actions. Visiting troops is part of our command activity," said Año.
Año said the modernization plan of the military will include developing a "deterrent capability." But he stressed he is confident there are no external threats at the moment, noting warmer ties with China and even Russia.
Año said the Philippine military will also keep its ties with the country's longtime treaty ally, the US.
"We are seeing how we are warming our relationship with other countries like China and Russia. we'll maintain our working relationship with the US. We can say that at the moment we are not facing any external threat against our country," he said. – Rappler.com