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MANILA, Philippines – Two big questions were raised by Senator Antonio Trillanes IV during the Senate hearing on Thursday, May 7, on China's aggressive behavior in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea).
"Have we lost Scarborough? Is China an enemy?" Trillanes asked during the hearing.
International law expert Harry Roque was discussing how China illegally took "possesion" of the rocky sandbar off the coast of Zambales province when Trillanes disrupted him to protest his use of the word "possession."
"I just like to confirm that from the defense officials. Did we lose Scarborough Shoal? Is China occupying Scarborough Shoal right now to the extent that we have lost it?"
National Security Adviser Cesar Garcia Jr replied: "We have not lost Scarborough Shoal. In fact, it is the subject of our arbitral case."
Satisfied, Trillanes declared, "It's not accurate to say that the Chinese have occupied and annexed Scarborough Shoal."
Scarborough Shoal has always been a fishing ground for many Filipino fishermen. In 2012, it was the site of a tense standoff between ships of Manila and Beijing. In the end, Manila withdrew and the Chinese ships practically occupied the shoal, eventually driving away Filipino fishermen using water cannons.
Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin admitted during the Senate hearing that that the Philippine military is "constrained" in the area because of the presence of Chinese vessels.
The Senate hearing called by Trillanes was a rare venue where the Philippine military, international law experts, and security observers openly discussed China's activities and scrutinized the government's strategic response. (READ: 'PH case provoked China's massive reclamation in the West PH Sea')
Trillanes also asked Foreign Assistant Secretary Benito Valeriano about the government's foreign policy towards China. "Is China an enemy or not?" he asked.
"China is not an enemy," Valeriano replied. (READ: Little-known fact: Philippines and China are defense partners)
The DFA official said the arbitration case is separate from the Philippines' bilateral ties with China.
Trillanes: While China is not an enemy, you are looking at the relationship in several dimensions. You're trying to separate one dimension from another.
Valeriano: You can say that, your honor.
But is the government strategy effective, considering the new developments in the West Philippine Sea?
Valeriano noted the international support that the Philippines' arbitration case has been getting.
"We have the support of many countries. The G-7 came out with a statement supporting our action. The US support our action. This is through the UN Law of the Sea. This is a matter that could not be ignored. Those who are not supporting this will have, probably, other ideas. But as far as the world community is concerned, they are behind us," Valeriano said.
During the Senate hearing, Garcia declared that the South China Sea row has become the biggest security threat for the Philippines considering the new developments. (READ: China continues to harass PH air patrols in West PH Sea)
Trillanes said it is high time to give the Armed Forces of the Philippines a bigger budget for its modernization. – Carmela Fonbuena/Rappler.com