x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Philippines may ask for US spy planes over South China Sea

Request for assistance to monitor disputed waters could inflame tensions with China.

MANILA // 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 said yesterday, a move that could worsen tensions with its giant neighbour China.

The two countries only recently stepped back from a months-long standoff 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 United States has stressed it is neutral in the long-running maritime dispute, despite offering to help boost the Philippines' decrepit military forces. China has warned that "external forces" should not get involved.

"We might be requesting overflights on that," Mr Aquino said in an interview with the Reuters news agency, referring to U.S. P3C Orion spy planes. "We don't have aircraft with those capabilities."

There was no immediate comment from Washington.

Last month, Mr Aquino pulled out a lightly armed coast guard ship and a fisheries boat due to bad weather around the Scarborough Shoal, a group of rock formations about 225 km 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 United States 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 as high as 213 billion barrels of oil, the US government said in a March 2008 report.

China, the Philippines, Taiwan, Brunei, Vietnam and Malaysia have competing claims on the sea, but 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 in the South China Sea, 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 and avoid complicating the situation," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin told reporters 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 sea dispute, said he had not decided whether to send Philippine ships back to the disputed shoal. He said he had called a cabinet meeting on Thursday 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 United States 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.

In August last year, the US Pacific Command made an initial offer to deploy the P3C Orion spy planes to the Philippines and help monitor disputed areas in the South China Sea after China increased its presence and activities near Reed Bank.

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 back to the region may be encouraging smaller nations such as Vietnam and the Philippines to take a bolder stance over the sea dispute, analysts say.

Mr Aquino also said he would not object to an increased "rotational tempo" for US military forces in the country to help train their Filipino counterparts.

The Philippine president said China should not be alarmed by Philippine efforts to improve its monitoring capability.

"Does the Philippines have the capacity to become an aggressor?" he asked. "By any stretch of the imagination, the Philippines does not. So why should it upset a superpower if we're all reasonable?"