By Joyce Ann L. Rocamora

DEFENSE COOPERATION. US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin III, Australian Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Defense Richard Marles, Japanese Minister of Defense Kihara Minoru, and Defense Secretary Gilberto Teodoro (left to right) hold a quadrilateral meeting at the Indo-Pacific Command (Indopacom) Headquarters in Honolulu, Hawaii on May 2, 2024. The defense chiefs collectively called out China’s “dangerous use” of coast guard and maritime militia vessels in the South China Sea, and called on China to abide by the 2016 Arbitral Ruling on the South China Sea. (Photo courtesy ofthe Office of Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin III)

HONOLULU, Hawaii – The respective defense chiefs of the Philippines, Japan, the United States, and Australia have collectively called out China’s “dangerous use” of coast guard and maritime militia vessels in the South China Sea (SCS).

The statement was made after the quadrilateral meeting among Defense Secretary Gilberto Teodoro, US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin III, Japanese Minister of Defense Kihara Minoru, and Australian Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Defense Richard Marles at the Indo-Pacific Command (Indopacom) Headquarters in Honolulu, Hawaii on May 2.

In a joint readout, the four ministers said they “strongly” object to the dangerous use of coast guard and militia vessels; and that they are seriously concerned over the ongoing situation in the East and South China Sea.

“They reiterated serious concern over the PRC’s (People’s Republic of China) repeated obstruction of Philippine vessels’ exercise of high seas freedom of navigation and the disruption of supply lines to Second Thomas Shoal, which constitute dangerous and destabilizing conduct,” it read.

They also emphasized the need to uphold freedoms of navigation and overflight, and called on China to abide by the 2016 Arbitral Ruling on the South China Sea.

The ministers pledged to further strengthen cooperation among the Philippines, Japan, the US, and Australia “in support of regional security and stability.”

During the meeting, the four discussed ways to advance their defense cooperation – through continued maritime cooperation in the South China Sea, enhanced procedures to enable coordination and information sharing arrangements, as well as strengthening capacity building.

The meeting follows China’s most recent harassment and use of water cannon on Filipino civilian vessels conducting routine humanitarian mission to Bajo de Masinloc or Scarborough Shoal on April 30.

The Philippine Coast Guard vessel BRP Bagacay suffered some damage to a part of its superstructure while the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) vessel sustained damage to its heating, ventilation, and air conditioning systems; electrical, navigation, and radio systems; and superficial hull.

The meeting marks the second time the defense ministers of the four nations met, an engagement the US Department of State described as a reflection to the Philippines, Japan, the US, and Australia’s common goal to “advance a shared vision for a free, open, secure and prosperous Indo-Pacific.”

What needs to be done

In a recent meeting with Filipino journalists in Arlington, Virginia, former US Air Force General Herbert “Hawk” Carlisle said the Philippines is “doing exactly what it needs to do” amid China’s continuing harassment in the West Philippine Sea.

He lauded its efforts to fortify partnerships, including with the US, Japan, and Australia, citing the need to further improve interoperability with like-minded countries in the region.

“The primary thing is to continue to grow those relationships and that interoperability with friends, partners, allies in the region,” he said.

In addition, he cited the need for Manila to improve its air and missile defense systems.

Carlisle said China’s arsenal of weapons, including long-range bombers, “indicate that integrated air and missile defense for every nation in the Pacific region is critically important.”

“I think the homeland defense of the Philippines is critical. I personally think that air and missile defense is one of the things that every nation in the Pacific has to invest in,” he said.

A pressing concern

Even from far away back home, Filipinos in the US remain concerned over the situation in the South China Sea.

In an interview in San Francisco, California, 67-year-old Delma Lumo said she is “very much concerned” about the developments in the area since she has a family in the Philippines.

She said she supports the path the Marcos administration is taking to defend the country’s rights over the area.

The same goes for 59-year-old Manolo Aquino, a Filipino-American aircraft mechanic from Newark who also had his fair share of interactions with the Chinese in the South China Sea when he was still working as a helmsman before he immigrated to the US.

“I like the policy of PBBM (President Bongbong Marcos) right now, because he is concerned about the West Philippine Sea, and it’s good for the future of the Philippines,” he said in an interview.

Aquino said he also supports the improving relations between the Philippines and the US on the issue of the South China Sea.

“I was a former seaman and I know that passage is very important in the maritime industry,” he said.

Aquino retired as a helmsman in 2014 but he already witnessed what he described as “the Chinese expanding their power to control” in the South China Sea has brought to the area.

“At that time, wala pang problema, wala pang militarization masyado pero naririnig na namin na they require to call Chinese maritime entities na kapag dumaan ka doon, tatawag sila to identify yourself. This was around 2010 to 2014 (At that time there was not much militarization yet but we were already hearing that they require to call Chinese maritime entities whenever you pass there. They’ll call to ask you to identify yourself. This was around 2010 to 2014),” he recounted.

Naririnig ko iyon as helmsman (I used to hear it when I was a helmsman). They require you to report. It’s like you’re entering the maritime area of the Chinese. That was in the area between China and the Philippines in the South China Sea until Taiwan,” he said.

Before that, Aquino said, they could freely pass by the area without the need to report to China.

For seafarers, he said, the South China Sea is a vital sea-lane to safely ferry commercial goods from Africa and the Middle East, to Asia and the Americas.

“We can sail on the other side of the Philippines, the Pacific Ocean pero kapag dumaan ka dito very rough, kaya dito talaga sa South China Sea ang safe passage (but if you go by that side, it’s very rough. That’s why the safe passage is here in the South China Sea),” Aquino said.

Bihira ang dumadaan via Pacific kasi ang iko-konsumo mo na fuel mas marami (Ships rarely use the Pacific route because this consumes more fuel).” (with a report from Priam Nepomuceno/PNA)