Philippines risks tension with China over US spy plane request
THE Philippines may ask the United States to deploy spy planes over the South China Sea to help monitor the disputed waters, president Benigno Aquino has said, a move that could worsen tensions with China.
The two countries only recently stepped back from an armed stand-off at the Scarborough Shoal, a horseshoe-shaped reef near the Philippines in waters they both claim – the latest round of naval brinkmanship over the resource-rich sea.
The US has said it is neutral in the dispute, despite offering to help boost the Philippines’ decrepit military forces. China has warned “external forces” should not get involved.
“We might be requesting overflights on that,” Mr Aquino said in an interview, referring to US P3C Orion maritime surveillance aircraft. “We don’t have aircraft with those capabilities.”
Last month, Mr Aquino pulled out a lightly armed coastguard ship and a fisheries vessel due to bad weather around the Scarborough Shoal – also called the Panatag Shoal – which lies about 140 miles west of the main Philippine island of Luzon.
The South China Sea is potentially the biggest military flashpoint in Asia, and tensions have risen since the US adopted a policy last year to reinforce its influence in the region.
At stake is control over what are believed to be significant reserves of oil and gas. Estimates for proven and undiscovered oil reserves in the entire sea range from 28 billion to 213 billion barrels of oil, the US Energy Information Administration said in a March 2008 report.
China, the Philippines, Taiwan, Brunei, Vietnam and Malaysia have competing claims on the sea. China’s claims encompass almost all its waters.
China said last week it had begun “combat-ready” patrols in waters it said were under its control, after saying it “vehemently opposed” a Vietnamese law asserting sovereignty over the Paracel and Spratly islands.
“We hope the Philippines will no longer issue information that provokes public opinion,” Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Liu Weimin said yesterday, responding to the Philippine military’s assertion that it could return to the Scarborough Shoal at any time.
Mr Aquino, whose presidency has seen a cooling of ties with China over the dispute, said he had not decided whether to send Philippine ships back to the area. He said he had called a cabinet meeting for later this week to discuss the issue and overall relations with China.
Manila has been looking to its old ally Washington for ships, aircraft, surveillance equipment and other hardware as the US refocuses its military attention on Asia. Manila has offered Washington greater access to airfields and its military facilities in exchange for more equipment and frequent training.
Last August, the US Pacific Command made an initial offer to deploy the P3C Orion planes to the Philippines – a former US colony – and help monitor disputed areas in the South China Sea after China increased its presence and activities near Reed Bank, part of the western Philippines Palawan island group.
Despite its professed neutrality over the South China Sea dispute, the US military “pivot” back to Asia is widely seen as a response to China’s growing military capabilities. Its shift may be encouraging smaller nations such as Vietnam and the Philippines to take a bolder stance over the sea dispute, analysts say.
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