EXCLUSIVE: PH, Chinese coast guards to hold training, joint exercises

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(file photo)

Highlights

  • PH Coast Guard will send 20 personnel to train in China by June
  • Chinese Coast Guard will have its first port visit to the Philippines in August or September 2017
  • Two Philippine Coast Guard ships will visit China and have joint exercises
  • PH Coast Guard considering agreements with Russia
  • PH Coast Guard will patrol Benham Rise in May

Metro Manila (CNN Philippines) — The Philippine and Chinese coast guards jumpstart warmer relations with reciprocal visits and joint maritime training exercises, a Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) spokesperson said Monday.

A first-ever reciprocal visit between the two coast guard forces is scheduled for later this year, Lt. Cdr. Armando Balilo told CNN Philippines' The Source.

"By August or September, a ship from Guangdong, China, the Coast Guard headquarters in China, will be going to the Philippines," Balilo said.

"On the way back to their home port, we'll be sending two ships. Along the way, magkakaroon ng exercise [there will be exercises]-so it might be search and rescue, law enforcement, or environmental exercises."

The cooperation between the two coast guard comes even as China strengthens its presence in disputed areas such as Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea, and was spotted in Benham Rise on the Philippines' eastern seaboard.

The exchange between the two countries will kick off in June 2017 when the PCG sends "20 personnel to China to learn about law enforcement," Balilo said.

The Chinese and Philippine coast guards have entered into arrangements on joint search and rescue operations, while laying the groundwork for mutual agreement on the handling of illegal drugs and piracy in the high seas based on international guidelines, Balilo said.

The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) has the Legal Framework for the Repression of Piracy, which provides that all states have "an obligation to cooperate to the fullest possible extent" to curb piracy. Articles 100 to 107 of UNCLOS detail the definitions and approach to piracy.

Article 108 of UNCLOS also ensures that states have a duty to "cooperate in the suppression of illicit traffic in narcotic drugs and psychotropic substances engaged in by ships on the high seas."

From foes to friends?

The agreements between China and the Philippines were arrived at after two meetings between the Chinese and Philippine coast guards on orders of President Rodrigo Duterte, Balilo said.

The first meeting took place in December 2016, and the second in February 2017.

Balilo admitted that they were at first "nervous" to meet the Chinese Coast Guard after decades of tension over the Philippine claims in the South China Sea which lie within the country's 200-mile (321-kilometer) exclusive economic zone.

"During the first meeting for me it was a little bit tense," said Balilo. "But later on, during capacity-building workshops, nakakapag-usap kayo, e. And unti-unti, naeestablish mo yung friendly relations."

[Translation: But later on, during capacity building workshops, you get to talk. And slowly, friendly relations get established.]

In July 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague issued a landmark ruling in favor of the Philippines, awarding to it jurisdiction over islets and seas in South China Sea within the country's exclusive economic zone. China has refused to acknowledge the decision and claims the South China Sea in its entirety.

Amid this, President Duterte adapted a foreign policy shift away from the West, and established closer ties with the Asian giant.

Related: Dominguez: Duterte raised $33 billion loans, aid from foreign trips

However, there have been reports of continued Chinese military presence in the disputed islands.

Since August 2016, 12 diplomatic protests have been filed on the matter, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said in March. However, China has either ignored the protests or dismissed these allegations.

Patrol in Benham Rise

The PCG will patrol Benham Rise by May 2017, he said, adding it was previously unable to do so because its ships did not have the capability to withstand the huge waves.

"We have included that in the deployment plan, and definitely we will be there as soon as the weather is clear," Balilo said.

A Chinese vessel was also spotted in Benham Rise, an underwater plateau, 217 kilometers off the eastern province of Aurora.

Their presence raised concern that they might be looking to build over the area, which is still Philippine territory.

China has since announced they were only exercising their "right to innocent passage," denying there were other activities that took place.

Related: PH, China exchange statements over ships spotted in Benham Rise

"At this point we don't have any evidence on what (China is) doing, whether they are making surveys or studies," Balilo disclosed.

He added that they still had to verify information regarding how long the Chinese vessel was in the area.

The PCG is considering other cooperative arrangements with a newfound ally, Balilo said.

"We are looking for a similar agreement with Russia," said Balilo. "We are talking with the ambassador and in fact, he visited the Coast Guard headquarters already."

Russian Ambassador to the Philippines Igor Khovaev visited the PCG in January 18, 2017.

They were reported to have discussed similar areas of collaboration, particularly port visits, law enforcement trainings, marine environmental protection advocacies and search and rescue cooperation.