This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
The Philippines is in the process of crafting a more assertive strategy for waters it claims in the disputed South China Sea, a Navy commander said on Wednesday.
Philippine Western Command chief Vice Adm. Alberto Carlos comment came days after Manila accused China Coast Guard ships of installing a floating barrier – removed later by the Philippines – at the sea’s disputed Scarborough Shoal, which China on Monday reiterated was its territory.
Manila, which also claims the shoal, was in the midst of forming “a national strategy” with a “stronger assertion of rights in the sea,” Carlos said, referring to waters within the Philippines’ jurisdiction.
Carlos’ command is in Palawan, the country’s western frontier facing the West Philippine Sea – Manila’s name for the South China Sea within its exclusive economic zone.
“For the military alone, our line of efforts include the effective occupation of the islands that we already occupied and also establishing a stronger naval presence in our area,” he said.
The strategy would allow the military to “know what is happening in our area, precisely where they are, where are all the vessels of interest, the militia vessels, the Chinese Coast Guard,” Carlos said.
A United Nations tribunal in 2016 dismissed China’s sweeping claims over most of the South China Sea, including Scarborough Shoal, but Beijing has refused to recognize the ruling.
Instead of seeking to enforce the ruling, then-President Rodrigo Duterte sought to ingratiate himself with China in exchange for pledges of investments.
In contrast, his successor as president, Ferdinand Marcos Jr., has been firm on the Philippines’ position and has sought stronger defense alliances with the United States and other western countries including Australia and Britain.
In Beijing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin on Wednesday maintained his nation’s hardline stance on the shoal.
“What the Philippines did looks like nothing more than self-amusement,” he told reporters.
“China will continue to safeguard our territorial sovereignty and maritime rights and interests over Huangyan Dao,” he said, using the Chinese name for Scarborough Shoal.
Carlos rejected the Chinese stance on the barrier at the shoal, which the Philippines calls Bajo de Masinloc.
“We are not stirring [up] any trouble. We are just asserting our rights in the area,” he said.
“Our duty is to defend and protect our sovereignty and sovereign rights in the West Philippine Sea. We are just doing our job, we are doing our job as far as asserting our jurisdiction over our exclusive economic zone.”
China has disputes with the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan over the South China Sea and has become more aggressive in the region.
In addition to the floating barrier, Chinese ships have harassed military resupply missions to troops on the Philippine-occupied Ayungin Shoal in recent months.
The troops are stationed on a World War II-era ship, the BRP Sierra Madre, that was grounded at the shoal in 1999 to serve as a military outpost. The China Coast Guard has fired water cannons and taken steps to harass Philippine Coast Guard ships escorting missions to the BRP Sierra Madre.
The Philippine Western Command chief said Marcos’ directive was to ensure that BRP Sierra Madre remains where it is and “strong enough to be able to fly the Philippine flag.”
“We intend to comply with that order,” Carlos said.
Meanwhile, the Philippines and the United States navies are set to launch joint exercises in the South China Sea next month, said Lt. Col. Enrico Gil Ileto, military public affairs chief.
More than 600 U.S. Navy personnel are expected to attend the 12-day drills dubbed Sama-Sama. Representatives from Britain, France, Indonesia, Japan and New Zealand are scheduled to attend as observers.
Ileto said the annual exercise “aims to further strengthen international defense cooperation and advance a rules-based international order.”
He said the Philippine Navy’s guided missile frigate BRP Antonio Luna will be joined by the USS Dewey, a guided missile destroyer, and the USNS Wally Schirra cargo ship.
The exercises are part of the Mutual Defense Treaty signed in 1951, which calls on both countries to aid each other in times of aggression by an external power.