Aquino creates West Philippine Sea task force

MANILA, Philippines – Citing the "evolving strategic landscape," President Benigno Aquino III created a task force that would unify national action on the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea) issue.

The President signed Memorandum Circular 94 on March 17, creating the National Task Force for the West Philippine Sea (NTF-WPS) chaired by the National Security Adviser.

In issuing MC 94, Aquino said: "Given the country's national interest, national policies, and evolving strategic landscape, a more deliberate and coherent approach in addressing the West Philippine Sea issue is needed for the purpose of orchestrating the national effort and achieving unified action in the West Philippine Sea."

The President created the body as tension erupted anew between Chinese authorities and Filipino fishermen in an area considered as traditional Philippine fishing grounds – Bajo de Masinloc (Scarborough Shoal) – 124 nautical miles off the coast of Zambales province. (READ: PH: 'Disconcerting that nobody is stopping China')

A Chinese coast guard vessel reportedly rammed into Filipinos fishing in the shoal. Bejiing later accused the fishermen of hurling fire bombs at the Chinese vessel.

Manila has brought a case before an international tribunal to rule on the disputes over territories, including Scarborough Shoal. It argued that an unfavorable ruling would rob its fishermen of the right to fish in their own waters, among others. (READ: China to build 'Berlin Wall of the Sea')

The move has infuriated Beijing, which insists the matter is outside the court's remit. A ruling on the case is expected before May.

Constitutional mandate

In creating the NTF-WPS, the Philippine leader said that "consistent with the Constitution, the Philippines' interest in the West Philippine Sea include the maintenance and protection of Philippine sovereignty, preservation and defense of territorial integrity, and promotion of the welfare and well-being of the Filipino people."

"The issues, policies and required actions in the West Philippine Sea transcend the maritime security domain as these extend to other areas of concern such as in the diplomatic, politico-legal, information, military and law enforcement, and socio-economic fields," Aquino added.

He cited several constitutional provisions, among them, Section 7, Article II of the Constitution "that provides that national sovereignty, territorial integrity, national interest, and the right to self determination are paramount considerations of the Philippines in its relations with the international community."

Aquino also cited the constitutional provision mandating the Armed Forces of the Philippines "to secure the sovereignty of the State and the integrity of the national territory" and the duty of the government "to protect the nation's marine wealth in its archipelagic waters, territorial sea, and exclusive economic zone" for sole use of its citizens.

Members, functions

The body will have as regular members representatives from the following departments and offices:

The task force chair may also seek out other government officials and private citizens. The National Security Council will provide administrative and technical support to the task force.

The NTF-WPS will receive guidance from the president, through the cabinet cluster on security, justice, and peace.

It will be responsible for tapping the government agencies in achieving Philippines objectives in the West Philippine Sea, and will give reports and recommendations to the Chief Executive through the cabinet security cluster.

The NTF-WPS, which will assume the functions of the Inter-Agency Committee on the West Philippine Sea, will create an area-level task force (ATF) which will synchronize the efforts of the different government agencies at the area level. The ATF may also organize tactical-level task forces. – Rappler.com