Manila (Philippine Daily Inquirer/ANN) - The Philippines deployed on Friday its biggest warship, the BRP Rajah Humabon, to patrol the West Philippine Sea, also known as the South China Sea, raising its naval profile in the escalating dispute over several islands in the Spratlys group with China and four Asian countries--Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Indonesia.
The deployment of the Philippine Navy's flagship and oldest warship, of World War II vintage, followed recent incursions by Chinese naval vessels into islands claimed by the Philippines in the Spratlys.
It also came amid the rise of encounters between Philippine and Chinese vessels trying to stop oil exploration by the Philippines and Vietnam in waters claimed by China as part of its territory for the past 2,000 years. The claims of the Philippines as well as those of Vietnam are anchored on international covenants on the law of the sea.
The dispute is over access to reportedly rich oil and marine resources underneath the disputed islands, as well as control of strategic shipping lanes in the region.
This flare-up of incidents among China, the Philippines and Vietnam over competing territorial claims has fueled a naval show of force and has made the West Philippine Sea the flash point of the dispute in the region.
The Philippine naval deployment came in the face of at least three tension fueling events.
The start last week of the live-fire exercises in the South China Sea by Vietnam, which warned vessels to stay out of the live ammunition drill area off Quang Nam province. The drill followed a verbal clash with China over sovereignty in the area.
The clash also occurred after an angry Chinese reaction to Vietnam's charge that a Chinese fishing boat rammed cables from an oil exploration vessel inside its exclusive economic zone. China claimed Chinese fishing boats were chased away by Vietnamese ships. Beijing accused Vietnam of "gravely violating" its sovereignty, saying that Vietnam's actions endangered Chinese sailors' lives and warned Vietnam to stop all "invasive activities."
Vietnam said the "premeditated and carefully calculated" action was part of China's attempts to control disputed waters. Rather than be cowed by China's warnings, Vietnam responded with holding the live-fire exercises.
Showing defiance to Chinese incursions into the Philippine areas in the West Philippine Sea, Manila announced the deployment of the Humabon on the eve of annual joint exercises of Philippine and US forces under their mutual defense treaty.
Philippine defense officials believe that the exercises would act as a signal to China that the United States would come to the aid of the Philippines if an armed conflict with China breaks out over the Spratlys.
Following the increasing encounters with Chinese vessels intruding into territories it has made claims and interfering in explorations for resources in the West Philippine Sea, Manila started an arms shopping in the United States for weapons to build up its naval facilities, including a Hamilton-class vessel to patrol its territory.
The Philippines has a relatively weak Navy to prevent sneak construction on its claimed territories. Despite claims and pledges by China at the recent Asian security summit in Singapore to pursue a peaceful solution of territorial disputes, rival claimants are not reassured.
Chinese Defense Minister Lian Guanglie told the worried Asians at the summit, "China is committed to maintaining peace and stability in the South China Sea. At present, the general situation in the South China Sea remains stable," adding that freedom of navigation had never been impeded.
Filipino officials have claimed that the Philippines is pursuing diplomatic means, or "rules-based" arrangements, in concert with its Asean allies, but Manila does not trust China's soothing pledges. The Philippines is suspicious and nervous over China's hegemonic ambitions in the region in the light of the rise of Beijing's economic power.
These apprehensions are expressed in some ways by the Philippines decision to build up its naval muscle and to deploy the Humabon as a show of force of its determination not to be bullied by Chinese threats.
In Manila on Friday, President Aquino expressed his strongest statement yet against Chinese incursions into territories claimed by the Philippines. He said in an interview with The Associated Press that in the deployment of Humabon, the Philippines reserved the right to explore its waters, despite Chinese rival claims.
"We will not be pushed around because we are a tiny state compared with others," Mr. Aquino said. "We think we have very solid grounds to say 'do not intrude into our territory' and that it is not a source of dispute or should not be a source of dispute," the President said.
"We will continue with dialogues, but I think for our internal affairs, we don't have to ask anybody else's permission."
He added, "We are not going to escalate the tensions here, but we do have to protect our rights."
Cmdr. Celestino Abalayan, captain of the Humabon, explained his mission. "Our objectives are to establish naval presence in the area and to test the readiness of our vessel in terms of territorial defense operations. We are conducting defensive naval patrol to safeguard the waters of the country."
All right, we have told the Chinese that we don't want to be bullied by them. With all this tough talk, Abalayan has a big job.
He must be sure that the guns of Humabon don't jam--when they are needed to sink Chinese ships.