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Retired military, police urge united stance on West Philippine Sea ahead of Independence Day

Bella Perez-Rubio (Philstar.com) – June 11, 2021

MANILA, Philippines — Advocates for National Interest (ANI), a group composed of retired police and military officers, on Friday called on Filipinos to “unite and rally to our flag in assertion of our rights in the West Philippine Sea.” 

Retired Gen. Eliseo Rio, also a former information communications and technology undersecretary, relayed this message at a virtual talk alongside Sen. Risa Hontiveros on the West Philippine Sea in anticipation of Independence Day on June 12.

“Today, we face a real threat to our national security. China’s transgression of Philippine sovereignty and sovereign rights in the West Philippine Sea in violation of international law jeopardizes our future,” Rio warned. “The vast resources of the West Philippine Sea present a promise of deliverance to our people but China is taking that away from us.” 

“As our nation prepares to celebrate the Independence Day, let us remember how we, Filipinos, more than a century ago, stood up to challenge a much stronger power in order to be freed from subjugation and bullying,” he also said, referring to Spain’s colonization of the Philippines for over 300 years. 

The Philippines was also a colony of the US, a close ally that still exerts significant influence on the country’s culture and politics.

‘Philippines not free by coincidence’

In a separate message for Independence Day, Hontiveros said that Beijing has been ignoring diplomatic protests over the presence of Chinese ships in the West Philippine Sea. She added that their presence deprives Filipinos of natural resources that they are entitled to.

She also acknowledged efforts to guard against incursions into Philippine waters.

“Nais kong bigyang pugay ang ating mga matatapang na opisyal ng Philippine Coast Guard, Philippine Navy, ng Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources, at mga volunteers na walang tigil na nagpapatrol at nagbabantay sa ating mga teritoryo sa laot,” she also said.

(I want to pay tribute to the officers of the Philippine Coast Guard, Philippine Navy and Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources, as well as to volunteers, who continue to patril and guard our waters)

She said that Philippine vessels sent out to patrol the West Philippine Sea underscore the need to continue to assert sovereignty in the area.

“Patunay lamang, na kailanman, hindi nagkataon lang na malaya ang Pilipinas. Hindi ito swerte. Dito sa ‘duyan ng magiting’, hindi ‘one-time, big-time’ ang laban para sa kalayaan. Paulit-ulit itong iginigiit at ipinapahayag, sa laot man o sa kalupaan,” she said.

(This proves that, as ever, it is not by coincidence that the Philippines is free. This is not a matter of chance. In this ‘cradle of heroes’, the struggle for independence is not a ‘one-time, big-time’ thing. It is something that must be repeatedly asserted and proclaimed on the seas or on land.)

‘Allies, partners, friends willing to share the burden’

China does not recognize the arbitral ruling that invalidated its extensive nine-dash claim over the South China Sea and continues to send fishermen, coast guard ships and maritime militia ships to the West Philippine Sea which is the portion of the critical waterway within the Philippine exclusive economic zone. 

Disputing a narrative often pushed by President Rodrigo Duterte and his officials, Rio asserted that war is not the only way to defend the country’s sovereign rights. Former Supreme Court Justice Antonio Carpio as well as lawyers, scholars and members of the political opposition have criticized what they said is a defeatist stance amid China’s repeated incursions in the West Philippine Sea. 

“We are not alone. There is a range of diplomatic, legal, informational tools or soft power that can be deathly used,” he said. “We have allies, partners and friends willing to share the burden to keep a secure, stable and free-flowing trail to the South China Sea.” 

READ: Senators push ‘united stand’, multilateral approach on South China Sea disputeLIST: World powers that criticized China’s maritime militia ships at West Philippine Sea reef

“Now is the time for us to unite again as a people,” the retired general urged Filipinos. “We must set aside any political partisan agenda and parochial interests. This conflict with China should serve to unify rather than divide us.” 

Former Sen. Rodolfo Biazon, also a retired chief of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, made a similar call for a clear and united stance on the West Philippine Sea. 

Biazon agreed that there must be a united stand on the West Philippine Sea so the Filipino people will not be confused.

“Pangalawa na hindi dapat nalilito ay ‘yung ating mga kaibigan. Yung mga kaalyado natin. Andyan ang Japan, andyan ang Australia, andyan ang buong mundo (Secondly, so our friends will not be confused. Our allies. Japan is there. Australia is there. The whole world is there),” he also said.

Biazon said that issues in the West Philippine Sea, and the South China Sea that it is part of, are of interest to the world because of the amount of commerce that passes through those waters.

“We need the allies, and let us not confuse them,” he said, partly in Filipino. “And even more important is to make sure that those claiming our waters are not confused either.”

He said that mixed signals could encourage more aggressive actions in Philippine waters. 

Biazon last month went to the Senate to urge lawmakers to pass a resolution calling for the National Security Council’s convening to address what he called the “confusing” position of the country on the issue.

Malacañang at the time said there was no need to take such measures. 

ANI warns vs China’s ‘coercion tactics, propaganda’ 

Rio further accused China of employing “coercion and intimidation to expand and maintain its unlawful presence in the West Philippine Sea as seen in Julian Felipe Reef, the Ayungin Shoal, Panganiban Reef and the Bajo de Masinloc.” 

“Our people should know that an information war is going on that uses psychological propaganda and media tools to make us believe that their unlawful action in the West Philippine Sea is justified. This is… China’s narrative,” Rio said.

Earlier this week, the Philippines and China celebrated the 46th anniversary of formal diplomatic ties, lauding an “everlasting friendship” and a “win-win relationship,” which Duterte said will lead to “greater peace, progress, and prosperity.” 

Despite this, the Philippines filed a diplomatic protest over China’s “incessant deployment” of ships to Pag-Asa (Thitu) Island less than two weeks ago — the latest in a slew of Manila’s official objections to Beijing’s incursions in the West Philippine Sea. 

Duterte has also barred his Cabinet members, save for his spokesman Harry Roque and Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr., from publicly commenting on the dispute following an uncharacteristically heated war of words between the two countries’ top officials. 

Tensions over the critical waterway flared anew in March when some 220 Chinese ships were spotted swarming Julian Felipe Reef.

While its ships have since dispersed from the reef, Beijing has disregarded the numerous diplomatic protests filed by Manila and continues to deploy its ships to the West Philippine Sea. 

After campaigning on taking a strong stance against China’s incursions, the president early into his term said he would “set aside” Manila’s arbitral win to pursue closer ties with Beijing. A few years later, Duterte announced that he entered into an agreement with Chinese President Xi Jinping allowing China to trawl in Philippine waters.

“Let us look up to our leaders who would evoke in our people the highest sense of patriotism, courage and selflessness as we face the difficult path ahead,” Rio urged. “We owe it to ourselves. We owe it to the future generations of Filipinos.” 

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