Duterte picks West PH Sea commander as new Navy chief

MANILA, Philippines – Vice Admiral Ronald Joseph Mercado assumed as the new chief of the Philippine Navy on Saturday, November 12. 

President Rodrigo Duterte's appointee previously served as chief of the Palawan-based Western Command (Wescom), the military unit in charge of Palawan and the country's maritime claims in the Spratly Group of Islands in the disputed West Philippine Sea (South China Sea). 

But Duterte skipped the change of command ceremony held at the Naval Base Heracleo Alano in Sangley Point, Cavite City. Armed Forces chief of staff General Ricardo Visaya led the ceremonies.

Mercado is a member of Philippine Military Academy Class of 1983. He replaced Vice Admiral Caesar Taccad who reached the retirement age of 56.

Mercado's replacement as Wescom chief has not been named. 

Mercado leads the Philippine Navy at a time when the political leadership seeks to highlight economic relations with China over the maritime disputes despite a historic international arbitration ruling that junked China's sweeping claims in the South China Sea.

Duterte also reduced training exercises with the country's defense treaty ally, the United States, particularly ending naval drills that he said China was opposed to.

China refused to honor the ruling that upheld the Philippines' 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ) under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), declaring flashpoint areas Mischief Reef, Second Thomas Shoal, and Reed Bank as parts of the country's maritime territory. 

China has reclaimed Mischief Reef, which it wrested from the Philippines in 1994 under the administration of President Fidel Ramos. 

China has been asking the Philippines to remove a grounded ship in Ayungin (Second Thomas) Shoal that has served as its naval outpost, and has been harassing exploration activities on Reed Bank.

But the international court ruled that the territorial waters of Scarborough Shoal off the coast of Zambales is a traditional fishing ground for fishermen in the region, including Filipinos and Chinese. – Rappler.com