BY Simone Orendain – MANILA, Philippines — The Philippines says it is considering several options to keep watch over disputed areas in the South China Sea, including enlisting the aid of U.S. military spy planes. President Benigno Aquino raised the idea days before a major regional security summit where the United States and China have clashed in the past.
President Aquino first remarked Monday to the Reuters news agency that the Philippines “might be requesting over-flights” of the South China Sea by U.S. military spy planes.
Presidential Communications Secretary Ramon Carandang stressed on state-run television Tuesday there has not yet been a decision on the matter, and that the primary responsibility for monitoring remains with the Philippine government.
“Let me add also, that these are — if, if they happen at all — they are surveillance flights,” he said. “They’re not meant to be provocative. They’re merely meant to monitor our territory. There’s no offensive capability here so this should not be viewed as a provocative statement.”
Carandang said the nation is also considering the purchase of new vessels to augment its tiny naval fleet.
A China Foreign Ministry spokesman said Monday Beijing hopes the Philippines will stop making provocative statements regarding the maritime dispute.
Spokesman Liu Weimin said, “It is the hope of the Chinese side that peace and stability can be maintained in [the] Asia Pacific region, and parties concerned do things conducive to regional peace and stability.”
The Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Brunei all claim portions of the sea adjacent to their coasts, while China and Taiwan claim practically the entire sea, a crucial navigation route which is potentially rich in oil and gas.
Carl Thayer, a Southeast Asia securities expert at the University of New South Wales says right now, China would see anything related to U.S. military activity in the disputed waters as a provocation.
However, Thayer says he expects the United States will try to calm the situation, especially with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations convening for a major security summit this week.
“The U.S. is going to try to sell… its willingness to cooperate with China, so any action with the Philippines has to be calibrated so that Southeast Asia sees the U.S. as trying to work with China rather than trying to create more problems for it,” he said.
Thayer says Manila has less provocative options for monitoring the waterway, including the use of radar to observe and detect foreign ships. He also likes the use of infra-red to pick up movement. Thayer says this would require a major investment in new hardware, possibly from the United States, which would put the U.S. in a more passive role as a seller.
The Philippines and the United States have a mutual defense treaty, yet the U.S. has refused to take a position on the territorial disputes. Under the treaty, the Philippines is upgrading its minimal military assets with more modern equipment at discounted prices. It has also opened its ports to more frequent stops by U.S. vessels, which once maintained a major naval base at Subic Bay.
At the 2010 ASEAN security summit, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton angered China by saying the disputes should be handled on a multilateral basis. China has steadfastly favored one-on-one talks with the claimant countries.