Philippines, US defense chiefs discuss maritime dispute

DEFENSE Secretary Delfin Lorenzana has committed to United States (US) Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin III that he will discuss the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) with President Rodrigo Duterte.

Austin, on the other hand, said he would raise with the office concerned Lorenzana’s request to expedite the delivery of Moderna vaccines against coronavirus disease 2019 (Covid-19).

These commitments were made during a telephone conversation between Lorenzana and Austin on Sunday, April 11, 2021, amid renewed tension between the Philippines and China in the West Philippine Sea (WPS).

The conversation occurred ahead of the planned conduct of the US-Philippines joint Balikatan Exercise, the Department of National Defense (DND) said in a statement.

The DND said Lorenzana and Austin also discussed other regional security matters, such as the territorial dispute in the South China Sea.

Lorenzana had engaged in a word war with the Chinese Embassy in Manila over the presence of Chinese vessels at the Julian Felipe Reef, which is within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ).

Lorenzana had repeatedly told the Chinese Embassy to remove the vessels from the area, while the Chinese Embassy had maintained that the reef is part of the Spratly Islands that it claims to own.

As of 8 p.m., Saturday, April 10, Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) Chief of Staff Cirilito Sobejana said 28 Chinese vessels, including that of the Chinese Coast Guard and Chinese militia, remained in the WPS.

“Ito ‘yung nahagip ng ating marpat (marine patrolling) ano, dalawa sa Pagasa (Island), isa sa Ayungin Shoal at tatlo sa Bajo de Masinloc,” he said in a radio interview on Sunday, April 11.

“’Yung fishing vessel, may dalawa sa Pagasa, merong sampu sa Ayungin at merong walo sa Bajo de Masinloc,” he added.

Sobejana said nine Philippine vessels - two from the Philippine Navy, two from the Philippine Coast Guard and five from the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources - are also in the area. Most of the BFAR vessels, however, have left to refuel, he added.

Sobejana said he will meet with the Joint US Military Assistance Group (Jusmag) within the day to discuss the mutual defense treaty and matters pertaining to the WPS.

“Ayon sa suggestion na rin ni Secretary of Foreign Affairs na even ‘yung harassment against Filipino civilian ships or boats ay dapat mapaloob dun sa mutual defense treaty,” he said.

China has refused to acknowledge an arbitral ruling that rejected its claims and upheld the Philippines’ right to the disputed area. (Third Anne Peralta-Malonzo / SunStar Philippines)


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