AFP chief sees ‘very tense’ situation in South China Sea, wants open communication lines with Beijing

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, October 13) — The country’s top military official sees an escalation of tensions in the disputed South China Sea, citing “aggressive” actions by Beijing.

“The situation now becomes more intense –- more tense -– because China is conducting its own unilateral exercises,” Armed Forces of the Philippines chief General Gilbert Gapay said in an online forum hosted by the Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines on Tuesday.

Gapay mentioned Beijing's reported firing of missiles in the South China Sea in August, prompting Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin, Jr. to warn Chinese authorities to "expect the worst" if the naval exercises spill over to Philippine territory. He also recalled Chinese vessels swarming in contested areas, and Beijing's reclamation activities.

“And here comes United States displaying a show of force. So it’s very tense right now,” Gapay added.

On Monday, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana was quoted as saying that the situation in the West Philippine Sea was “stable and manageable.” Gapay, on the other hand, describes it as “volatile and uncertain.”

Beijing claims almost all of the South China Sea, including areas that an international tribunal in The Hague ruled as part of Manila’s exclusive economic zone. China rejects the landmark ruling.

The United States does not claim any part of the global waterway but calls out China’s militarization of the area. It also conducts freedom of navigation operations in the contested waters.

President Rodrigo Duterte agreed to set aside the arbitral ruling to pursue friendship and cooperation with China. This remains the government’s stance despite the country affirming its arbitration win before the United Nations General Assembly.

'Military diplomacy'

Consistent with the policy of the Duterte administration, Gapay said the AFP is adopting a diplomatic approach, pushing for the establishment of open communication lines with China.

“I myself, I was able to talk to the commander of the Southern Theater Command of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army and we really intend to have to institutionalize that open lines of communication,” Gapay said. “This is part of the military diplomacy.”

Gapay explained that government forces maintain their presence in the West Philippine Sea by conducting daily naval and air patrols, and improving facilities in Philippine-occupied features such as Pag-asa Island.

“We’re building barracks there, local monitoring stations and other life support facilities for our troops,” Gapay said.

The Department of Foreign Affairs has filed several diplomatic protests with China amid the pandemic. The latest was in August where it called out the Chinese Coast Guard’s illegal confiscation of fishermen’s devices in Scarborough Shoal, and its issuance of radio challenges at AFP aircraft conducting regular maritime patrols in the West Philippine Sea.

Gapay said the AFP is also involved in the crafting of a Code of Conduct, which will determine the only allowable actions countries can take in the South China Sea. He hopes the code can be completed by early next year, but the target of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and China is to finish it by 2022, well within its three-year timeline.

READ: ASEAN, Beijing resumed meeting on South China Sea Code of Conduct – Chinese Embassy

CNN Philippines' David Santos contributed to this report.