(PHOTO - President Aquino welcomes Chinese Defense Minister Gen. Liang Guanglie during a courtesy call at Malacañang yesterday. WILLY PEREZ)

MANILA, MAY 25, 2011 (STAR) By Aurea Calica - The Philippines wants dialogue and not tension to dictate any approach to addressing territorial disputes in the South China Sea.

This was relayed by President Aquino to visiting Chinese Defense Minister Liang Guanglie in a meeting at Malacañang yesterday.

He made the declaration in the wake of reports that Chinese warplanes had intruded into Philippine airspace, particularly over Reed Bank in Palawan.

Presidential Communications Development and Strategic Planning Office Secretary Ricky Carandang said the President and Liang met for more than an hour assisted by a translator.

Carandang told reporters that both sides affirmed “the strong and growing relations between the two countries—both on the economic, political and military fronts.”

He said there were no specific discussions on the Reed Bank and Spratly Island Group but the President mentioned to Liang in “broad strokes” that “our position (is that) that tension and conflict does not serve any country’s purpose and that for everybody the best solution was dialogue, continuous dialogue, continued discussion.”

“And both said and hoped that these strong relations can continue to be strong moving forward. In fact, the minister’s meeting here with his counterpart, Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin, was meant to explore the ways in which the two countries can cooperate on security front,” Carandang said.

“It was a very fruitful meeting and we’re looking forward to closer relations to China in the coming months as a result of the dialogs that we’re having with them,” Carandang said.

Carandang said it was Liang who first mentioned in passing the South China Sea issue and the President took the opportunity to reiterate the country’s position.

“The Chinese government said that they were happy that the Philippines had responded not in a provocative manner, but had handled things in a very cool way,” he said.

Carandang said it was also the President who cited the need for a code of conduct in the South China Sea.

“Both sides are committed to peaceful resolutions in the disputes in the region and we hope that we can see some accelerated dialogue on those issues moving forward. Both sides agreed to that and that’s something that we want to pursue,” Carandang said.

“They (Chinese side) responded in exactly the same way. They said they agreed very much with us that discussion with other countries is the best way to move forward,” he said.

“I think both sides are eager to not let the irritant that had come up over the last several months become a thorn in the bilateral relations between the two countries which are, of course, much broader than a simple issue in the South China Sea. The Chinese-Philippine relationship has many facets and we’re eager to develop and enhance all aspects of our relationship,” Carandang said.

He said the joint marine seismic undertaking in the South China Sea was never discussed.

“I think what the discussions achieved was an agreement on the broad strokes—that we would not try to take actions that would raise tensions; that we would continue to dialog more frequently if necessary in order to prevent issues from becoming irritants,” Carandang said.

Liang leaves tomorrow after a four-day goodwill visit.

Commercial cooperation

The President, through spokesperson Edwin Lacierda, also said the Philippines is open to “commercial cooperation” in the disputed Spratly island group.

“The President has already said he believes causes for raising tensions or points of disagreement should be minimized,” Lacierda said. “The Philippines considers the People’s Republic of China a partner in achieving prosperity for the region and we are keen to explore areas for commercial cooperation in a spirit of mutual respect and sovereign dignity,” Lacierda added.

“The Aquino administration has repeatedly, and consistently, urged a resolution of the various disputes along multilateral lines, as envisioned by the Code of Conduct on the South China Sea which the Philippines was instrumental in drafting,” he said.

“Most definitely, the Philippines would like all nations to observe, and uphold, the Code of Conduct on the South China Sea which is the Philippines’ contribution to keeping the region an area of cooperation and not conflict,” Lacierda said.

The Department of Energy earlier announced the suspension of its marine seismic undertaking in the Kalayaan Island Group or Spratlys pending talks with other claimant-countries.

As regards Reed Bank in western Palawan, Lacierda reiterated that it is part of Philippine territory and is not among the disputed islets, shoals and atolls in the South China Sea.

“Let us be clear and concise, as well as precise, when it comes to reporting about the Kalayaan Group of Islands (often referred to as the Spratlys) as well as other places such as the Reed Bank,” Lacierda said.

“The Republic of the Philippines, by virtue of its possession and claim over the Kalayaan Islands, advocates a multilateral approach to settling disputes in the region, which involves all parties seated around the table,” Lacierda said.

“Amity by means of negotiation and cooperation is a central thrust of President Aquino’s foreign policy,” Lacierda said. “The cornerstone of President Aquino’s foreign policy is our aspiration to be ‘a reliable member of the community of nations, a nation serious about its commitments and which harmonizes its national interests with its international responsibilities,’ as the President laid out in his inaugural address,” he said. “This is why, even as President Aquino is enhancing our defense capabilities, he has advocated a sober, cooperative, and peaceful approach to settling disputes over the disputed islands,” Lacierda noted.

“It has always been an integral part of our national territory, and not subject to negotiation,” he said of Reed Bank.

‘Responsible behavior’

Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin and Liang, meanwhile, agreed that territorial disputes in the South China should be settled amicably, and urged rival claimants to avoid unilateral action.

The two defense chiefs acknowledged in a joint statement the need to ensure that the South China Sea remains stable and called for “responsible behavior” while claimant nations seek a peaceful solution.

“Unilateral actions which could cause alarm should be avoided,” the defense chiefs said in the statement.

Gazmin said they discussed the May 11 sighting of two unidentified foreign fighter jets over Reed Bank.

Two Philippine OV-10 Bronco patrol planes failed to identify the jets, which were at a higher altitude and made no hostile moves.

Liang, according to Gazmin, mentioned that Philippine media accounts identified the two aircraft as Russian-made MIG fighter jets and clarified that China has no MIG planes in its air force.

The discussions did not touch on a March 2 incident in which the Philippine government accused two Chinese patrol boats of harassing a Filipino oil exploration ship into leaving Reed Bank. A Filipino general scrambled two military aircraft, which arrived at the scene after the Chinese vessels had left, the Philippine military said.

Gazmin said he and Liang agreed that any conflict “should be settled amicably by opening the lines of communication, dialogues and sitting down and talking to each other.”

The 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which includes the Philippines and three other countries that claim the Spratlys, signed a nonbinding accord with China in 2002 that discourages aggressive behavior.

“Both ministers acknowledged the need to ensure that the South China Sea remains stable and recognized the usefulness of the declaration of the conduct of parties in the South China Sea signed in 2002 by China and the Association Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) where the Philippines is a member,” defense spokesman Eduardo Batac said.

Liang and Gazmin said the accord was useful but expressed hope that China and ASEAN could resolve a long-standing disagreement that has prevented them from finalizing the guidelines under the 2002 accord that would allow claimants to undertake joint, confidence-building projects in the disputed areas.

Gazmin, meanwhile, also announced China’s donation of military engineering equipment to the Philippines.

“They have given us another tranche of equipment, engineering units amounting to 10 million RMB or $1.5 million,” Gazmin said at Camp Aguinaldo.

Diplomatic protest

As the Philippine and Chinese defense chiefs were discussing ways to ease tension in the South China Sea, several senators said the government should file a diplomatic protest against China if it is proven that Chinese aircraft were involved in the Reed Bank incident.

Senate committee on national defense and security chairman Panfilo Lacson said that the government should take advantage of the presence of Liang to take up the issue and resolve it diplomatically.

“Just because we are a very weak country militarily, we should not be taken advantage of by more powerful countries,” Lacson said.

“Right now the only thing that we can do is to resort to diplomacy because we cannot do anything about it. We cannot fight China head on,” Lacson said.

Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile said the Philippines is being bullied because of its failure to spend more on improving its defense and patrol capabilities.

“We are treated that way because we are bull headed. We do not want to improve the military capability of the country. Now, why should we

be complaining if we are not willing to spend money on our defense and security?” Enrile said.

“As long as we are not willing to provide an adequate, suitable and capable defense for this country, we will be oppressed, demeaned and dishonored. We will be the stepping mat of every country in this region,” he said.

“It’s about time we wake up and strengthen our military capability even if we have to spend money,” he added.

“I think that China is trying to prove by all of these incursions into our space, territory that it is continuing to claim ownership,” Sen. Miriam Defensor-Santiago said. With Jaime Laude, Marvin Sy and AP

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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