According to Brig. Gen. Aurelio Baladad, deputy chief of staff for operations of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), this marks the first time China joined such a discussion, since it is also the first time the Philippines and the United States opened the Balikatan exercises to other countries.
“Ang Balikatan, originally, military to military ng US saka ng Pilipinas lang. Now, parang ine-expand naman natin ito as we globalize. What if something happens doon sa international waters? How do we respond to it?” Baladad told reporters Monday.
He added that the territorial dispute between China and the Philippines over parts of the South China Sea had nothing to do with the talks, since the discussions were on how to respond to maritime disasters such as oil spills.
“This is a multi-national approach. Kapitbahay natin sila, and just like other countries, they are one of the responders kung sakaling magkaroon ng incident na kailangang mag-respond in international waters… Sa disaster response siguro, wala nang mga tampuhan muna,” Baladad said.
China and the Philippines, as well as Taiwan, Vietnam, Brunei and Malaysia, have overlapping claims on the islands, shoals and reefs in the South China Sea where undersea gas deposits have been discovered in several areas.
In January, Manila initiated an arbitration process under the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) to try to declare as “illegal” China’s nine-dash claim, which covers nearly the entire resource-rich waters, where some parts are called by the Philippines as West Philippine Sea. Beijing, however, has already rejected the Philippines’ move.
‘Build response confidence’
A report from GMA News’ Ian Cruz, meanwhile, said Senior Colonel Wang Jinbo was one of the Chinese military officials who participated in the multinational maritime disaster reponse table-top discussion.
The report added that military officials from Australia, Japan and other Southeast Asian countries were also part of the talks.
The Philippine military added that the talks, considered to be one of the “highlights” of the Balikatan exercises, also aims to “build response confidence among multi-national partners.”
Some 8,000 soldiers from the US and the Philippines participated in this year’s Balikatan exercises, which started two weeks ago and is set to conclude on Wednesday.
Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario said the military exercises come “at a crucial time” for the Philippines amid “excessive and exaggerated maritime territorial claims that have not only created uncertainly, but have undermined the rule of law.” — Andreo Calonzo/KBK, GMA News