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Coast Guard eyes regular patrols at Benham Rise soon
The online news portal of TV5

MANILA - The Philippine Coast Guard will likely start regularly patrolling the vicinity of Benham Rise - the huge undersea land mass east of the Luzon mainland to which the Philippines has undisputed claim - by April or May, the PCG spokesman said Monday.

Referring to last week's revelation by Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana that Chinese survey ships were spotted in the area, and that China could be looking for sites to park its submarines, Commander Armand Balilo acknowledged in a television interview "it's a concern, actually."

He added that in fact, the PCG has been monitoring as well the passage of survey ships - not just China's - on the western side, such as near the Recto Bank believed rich in oil and gas deposits.

Balilo told CNN Philippines' "The Source" that the Coast Guard has found its meager resources stretched rather thinly, given the huge challenge of guarding the coastline of an archipelago, and the aggressive forays of foreign forces, mostly China's, in Philippine maritime territory.

The PCG has patrol jurisdiction over 36,000 kilometers of coastline, and must take care of 822 coastal municipalities.

The Coast Guard badly needs to develop - and fast - because it has to guard the West Philippine Sea and now Benham Rise, ensure the safety of vessels and guard against multinational criminal activities like drug trafficking; and in recent years, deal with the menace of rising piracy in the South.

In the last six months, Balilo said there have been 13 successful piracy attacks in the South. The government is under pressure to deal decisively with piracy because, "if we can't curb piracy there," the ships will be forced to take longer routes, bloating shipping costs for everyone.

He cited the high stakes at Sibutu Passage as example: being the shortest route for most commercial vessels, it sees over 14,000 ships traversing every year.

Balilo expressed gratitude for President Duterte's full support for the PCG's modernization, adding that in his last visit to the command, Duterte promised more choppers. As it is, the PCG only has two choppers, of which only one is operational. It only has two aircraft, of which only one - deployed to patrol over the West Philippine Sea - is in use.

He said one piece of good news is the recent arrival of the BRP Malapascua, the third of 10 multi-role vessels promised by Japan under its official development program for its Asian neighbor. This augments the heavy patriolling tasks of the BRP Tubattaha and the BRP Malabrigo.

Meanwhile, another tack for fast-tracking  the PCG's upgrading and capability boosting is  the series of manpower exchanges and joint exercises between the Philippines and other countries, including China.

There is already an international framework for battling piracy and drugs, so guidance for cooperation in that regard is already laid out, Balilo said. This will be boosted by the trips of Philippine PCG manpower to China starting in June, to learn more about law enforcement.

Consultants from the US Coast Guard also continue to help boost the PCG's capability, he added.