MANILA - The Philippines has said it will send its troops to a disputed shoal in the South China Sea if China uses force to drive away Filipinos fishing in waters there.
General Emmanuel Bautista, head of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), issued this warning on Monday in response to reports that ships from China's Coast Guard used water cannon to drive away Filipinos fishing in areas around Scarborough Shoal on Jan 27.
"We have to react militarily if force is applied," Gen Bautista said at a forum organised by the Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines (Focap).
"We have to react, consistent with the mandate we have to protect the state," he said. "If armed violence is used against our people, we will have to react to the best of our ability. That is the responsibility, the right of any country."
A spokesman for China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ms Hua Chunying, said at a regular press conference that she was "not aware of the specifics" of Gen Bautista's comments, but reiterated China's "indisputable sovereignty" over the Spratly islands and the nearby waters in the South China Sea.
She said China would continue to patrol "the area as usual".
At their meeting in Jakarta on Monday, Philippine Foreign Minister Albert del Rosario and his Indonesian counterpart Marty Natalegawa did not discuss the recent Scarborough Shoal incident.
However, they discussed developments in the South China Sea.
The most important thing was the South China Sea issue must be resolved by "peaceful means", Dr Marty told reporters.
Scarborough Shoal, a rich fishing area 220km off the main Philippine island of Luzon, was the site of a tense stand-off between Manila and Beijing in April 2012 after the Philippine navy intercepted eight Chinese fishing vessels carrying an illegal bounty of coral, giant clams and live sharks.
Beijing sent its own surveillance ships there and has since kept a presence in the area. A recent Philippine government report said there were signs China was preparing to build permanent structures at Scarborough Shoal.
Gen Bautista did not say how the military would deploy its forces to protect Filipinos fishing off Scarborough Shoal, which the Philippine navy had largely avoided since the 2012 stand-off.
The Philippine navy is one of the most ill-equipped in South- east Asia.
The bulk of its force consists of two frigates that have been in service with the US Coast Guard since the early 1960s and a third warship that has the distinction of being the last World War II-era destroyer escort in service.
The Philippines is aiming to modernise its military over five years at a cost of 75 billion pesos (S$2.13 billion).
It recently announced that it was acquiring a squadron of FA-50 fighters from South Korea in a deal worth 18.9 billion pesos.
To improve its hand against China, Manila is also set to conclude a deal with the United States that will allow American troops to re-occupy their former base in Subic Bay.
The US ended its permanent military presence in the country when it left Subic Bay in 1991.
US Ambassador to the Philippines Philip Goldberg announced at the Focap forum that if the agreement goes ahead, "we will be present in several locations".
He reiterated that the US and the Philippines have a mutual defence treaty that requires Washington to come to Manila's aid in the event of an attack or invasion.
This position echoes an assurance given earlier by US Navy commander Jonathan Greenert that the US would come to the aid of the Philippines in the event of a conflict with China.
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