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Tuesday, May 13, 2014

The 7th Fleet has never left

PerryScope
By Perry Diaz
Seventh-Fleet.3There is a minority but very vocal group of Filipinos – including militant lawmakers and Catholic Church leaders — who are critical of the recently inked Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) between the Philippines and the United States. Some say it was a mockery of the Philippine constitution. Some say President Benigno Aquino III sold out the country to America. And some say that China would drop thermonuclear bombs on the Philippines if war broke out with the U.S. Well, that’s what the anti-American minority thinks.
But what does the majority of Filipinos think? According to the 2013 Global Attitudes Project conducted by Pew Research Center in Washington, D.C., the Philippines got an 85% score – the highest among 39 participating countries — when people were asked: “Do you have a favorable or unfavorable view of the US?” But what were coming out in the Philippine press were mostly negative information — or misinformation — picturing the U.S. as a neo-colonial and imperialistic power.
Kadena Airbase in Okinawa
Kadena Airbase in Okinawa
Nothing is farther from the truth. As a matter of fact, America didn’t need to re-establish permanent bases on Philippine territory. The U.S. has close to 100,000 military personnel in Japan, South Korea, and Australia, and assets that include a nuclear aircraft carrier, nuclear submarines, fighter jets, and strategic bombers.
However, the U.S. is still committed to defend the Philippines if attacked by a foreign power. The Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT), which was signed in 1951, is still in full force notwithstanding the Philippine Senate’s abrogation of the U.S. bases agreement in 1991. But no sooner had the Americans left than the Chinese started grabbing Philippine territory.
Deception
Chinese fortifications on Pamganiban Reef
Chinese fortifications on Pamganiban Reef
In 1994, China built a platform on the tiny Panganiban Reef (Mischief Reef) purportedly to provide a rest stop for fishermen in the area. Since the reef was only 130 nautical miles from Palawan, the Philippines welcomed it, as it would be beneficial to Filipino fishermen. Wrong! As soon as the Chinese had established their presence in the area, they started building fortifications on the reef.
A more recent incident happened in 2012 at the Scarborough Shoal (Panatag Shoal), 124 nautical miles from Luzon. After driving out Filipino fishermen from the lagoon in the shoal, a standoff ensued between Chinese and Philippine Coast Guard vessels. The U.S. brokered a deal where both countries would withdraw their vessels from the shoal. The Philippines complied with the agreement but China did not. Instead China roped off the only entrance to the lagoon; thus, preventing Filipino fishermen from getting in.
It was then that President Aquino decided to ask the Americans for help. Negotiations were started eight months ago to look for ways to bring back the Americans without violating the 1987 Constitution, which prohibits foreign military bases on Philippine soil.
EDCA
Liaoning battle group
Liaoning battle group
On April 28, 2014, the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) was signed. The agreement came at a time when China had been building a blue-water navy capable of operating across the open seas, such as the waters surrounding the Philippines.
With a navy with no warships and an air force with no warplanes, the Philippines is helplessly at the mercy of China. China could easily take over Philippine territories in the disputed waters of the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea) without firing a shot.
Spratly Islands
Spratly Islands
For the past year, China has been keenly eyeing the Ayungin Shoal that is part of the oil- and gas-rich Spratly archipelago. Ayungin is only 105 nautical miles from the Palawan coast, which China could use as a forward operating base in the area. It is the gateway to the prized Recto (Reed) Bank, which is only about 80 nautical miles from Palawan. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration the Recto Bank could hold up to 5.4 billion barrels of oil and 55.1 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.
The only thing that’s preventing China from forcibly taking possession of Ayungin – and Recto Bank thereafter — is a small detachment of Philippine marines deployed to a rusty naval ship, the BRP Sierra Madre, which lays aground off Ayungin.
Vigilance
USS Blue Ridge
USS Blue Ridge
Last May 10, it was reported in the news that two helicopters from the USS Blue Ridge, the flagship of the U.S. 7th Fleet, spotted two Chinese guided missile destroyers near the Scarborough Shoal. The 7th Fleet issued a statement saying that it “has around 70 to 80 ships and submarines at its disposal along with 150 aircraft, and added that it operates 365 days throughout the Indo-Asia-Pacific region.”
The report also said, “The presence of the 7th Fleet flagship in the vicinity of the Scarborough coincided with the opening of the Balikatan Exercises 2014, wherein 5,500 Philippines and U.S. forces will be conducting simultaneous drills and humanitarian activities in different parts Luzon and the Visayas.”
With the 7th Fleet operating all year round in the Indo-Asia-Pacific region, it serves as a warning to all nations, particularly China, that the South China Sea, which is one of the busiest maritime routes, should – nay, must! – be open to free navigation by any country.
The size of the 7th Fleet would continue to increase as planned by President Barack Obama’s “Pivot to Asia,” which would “rebalance” 60% of U.S. naval and air forces to the Indo-Asia-Pacific region.
After more than two decades since the closure of the Subic Naval Base, which the 7th Fleet called home, many believe that she’s back in full swing. Wrong! The 7th Fleet has never left. She’s always been at sea vigilant as ever.
(PerryDiaz@gmail.com)

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