Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana is planning to visit soldiers manning military outposts in Philippine-occupied areas in the West Philippine Sea amid improved relations with China.
“One of the plans of our SND (secretary of national defense) is to visit our troops there, in his convenient available time,” Armed Forces of the Philippines chief Gen. Eduardo Año told reporters in an interview in Camp Aguinaldo on Sunday.
Año was referring to soldiers assigned in the disputed areas, part of the Spratly Islands which is being claimed in part or in whole by the Philippines, China, Malaysia, Vietnam, Brunei and Taiwan.
“We (defense and military establishment) will make sure that we are maintaining our presence in the West Philippine Sea and ensure the integrity of our territory,” Año added of Lorenzana’s planned visit.
If Lorenzana’s visit pushes through, it will be the first by an incumbent defense secretary in recent years.
Several AFP chiefs have visited Filipino troops in the area over the past years – the last was done by now retired Gen. Gregorio Catapang in May 2015.
The Duterte administration is seeking improved relations with China as it pursues an independent foreign policy.
China has offered a P720 million grant to the Philippine military to fight terrorism and eradicate illegal drugs.
Año said there is still no set date on when the defense chief’s visit will take place. “None yet. That’s part of his plans.”
Asked if the visit may increase the tension, he said: “Not really. What will up the tension is if you do a military aggressive action. Visiting troops is part of our command activity.”
China has been more aggressive over its claims in the South China Sea in previous years with land reclamation in several Chinese-occupied reefs.
The Chinese are reportedly in the process of putting up military facilities in these areas.
Department of National Defense public affairs service Chief Arsenio Andolong said there is still no specific date on Lorenzana’s visit to Pag-asa island and eight other Philippine-occupied areas in the South China Sea.
He said Lorenzana initially planned the visit last year but did not push through due to tensions.
“He has been thinking about it for some time now, but there is still no definite date. The plan is this year…There is now improved relations with China so it may push through,” he said.
He said defense officials will also consider China’s possible response in planning the visit.
“That’s one of the considerations. They might perceive that as a provocation and we are certainly taking that into consideration in the planning,” he said.
Año said the military is continuing with its maritime and aerial patrols in the area “even as as we’re taking care of our troops assigned there.”
He denied reports that China has withdrawn its ships near the Philippine-occupied Ayungin Shoal.
“We have no confirmatory reports on that. What we can say is that based on our monitoring, there is still presence of Chinese ships there,” he said.