Armed Forces chief Gen. Jessie Dellosa called on government troops to sustain operational readiness, as the standoff with China at the Scarborough Shoal entered its first week.

“It is imperative for our ground forces to sustain operational readiness keeping in mind the critical times that we are in now,” Dellosa said in a speech at the opening of the Balikatan joint military exercises with the US.

The military chief said the AFP is “in a shadow of doubt” on a certain “international issue,” which other nations are also concerned with.

“As a chief institution mandated to protect our people, uphold our territorial integrity, and defend this country’s sovereignty, we must be wary of this issue,” he said.

Dellosa did not specify what issue he was referring to, but gave the remarks while the Armed Forces was closely monitoring developments at the Scarborough Shoal.

“It is during these times that our alliances must be reaffirmed,” the AFP chief told an audience of military officials, mostly from the US and Philippines.

Balikatan ‘timely’

The 12-day Balikatan military exercises, according to Dellosa, is “timely” with the Philippines’ international issue.

“Even with the international situation that we are in, I say that this exercise in connection with all goals which we held in the past, is a timely and mutually beneficial event for us and our US counterpart,” he said.

But Maj. Emmanuel Garcia, the AFP’s spokesman for the Balikatan, said the annual military exercises are not related to the events at the Scarborough Shoal.

“It is not directed towards any country, it was planned way before and in fact, the field training exercises will be held in Fort Magsaysay,” Garcia said, referring to the Balikatan’s combat training aspect.

Fort Magsaysay, the Philippine Army’s largest camp, is located in Nueva Ecija. Scarborough Shoal is located about 124 nautical miles off Zambales.

Aside from exercises at the Army camp, participants of the Balikatan will also hold exercises aimed at protecting oil and gas platforms at sea, particularly the Malampaya natural gas project off Palawan.

The Malampaya natural gas platform can be found in waters of the West Philippine Sea, another area where the Philippines and China also have overlapping claims.

Civil-military operations, where US and Filipino soldiers will build houses and classrooms, will also be conducted in Palawan.

Philippines changes guard at Scarborough anew

Meanwhile, the Coast Guard deployed another ship to Scarborough Shoal on Monday to replace the search and rescue vessel which it sent earlier to relieve a Navy warship.

The Coast Guard’s SARV-002 arrived near the shoal around 7 a.m., joining the SARV-003, Armed Forces Northern Luzon Command chief Lt. Gen. Anthony Alcantara said.

The SARV-003, also known as BRP Pampanga, was earlier sent to Scarborough to relieve the Navy’s BRP Gregorio del Pilar in an ongoing standoff with Chinese ships that started last Tuesday.

But Coast Guard spokesman Lt. Cmdr. Alger Ricafrente said the SARV-002, which is also called BRP Edsa Dos, was sent to “replace” the BRP Pampanga which is now short of supplies.

“Papalitan siya (BRP Pampanga) kasi exhausted na rin yung resources niya, so kailangan niyang mag-refuel, re-water, (bumili ng) pagkain,” Ricafrente said.

The changing of Philippine ships came after China re-deployed one of its maritime surveillance vessels to the shoal, bringing the number of Chinese ships in the area back to two.

Aside from the two ships, a Chinese aircraft was also reportedly seen conducting “flybys” near the BRP Pampanga.

Despite the Chinese movements, Alcantara said he believes the situation in the disputed area was stable.

“I believe it’s very stable, normal. There are Filipino fishermen there, labas-masok ‘yung mga fishermen natin dun,” he said.

However, the regional military commander said the Navy ships that were sent earlier to the shoal are replenishing provisions and are ready to be deployed back. (John Roson)

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