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Philippines to stand ground in South China Sea
Philippines President Benigno Aquino speaks to Kesha West about the Mindanao peace agreement, South China Sea tensions, and his tough approach to protecting the country's 'rights'.

If Philippines president Aquino succeeds in turning a preliminary agreement with his country's Muslim insurgents into a peace settlement he will have succeeded where his predecessors failed for fully 40 years.

But it's far from the only issue on his plate. The Philippines is in the midst of an increasingly heated row with China over long disputed territory in the South China Sea, and the president insists his country is determined to stand its ground

Kesha West spoke to Benigno Aquino at Malacanang Palace in Manila.
KESHA WEST, REPORTER: President, welcome to the program.


KESHA WEST: If I can begin by asking you about the long awaited peace accord that was signed earlier this week between your government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, how difficult was it to get to this point? You were one of the main leaders in these negotiations. How difficult was it to reach an agreement and how much of a sticking point was the policing and future security of the Bangsamoro territory?

BENIGNO AQUINO: Was it difficult, yes, because you have to take into context. The problems in Mindanao, especially in that area, have started when I was in grade school. So I'm 52 right now - About 40 years, 40-plus years. Then, for the longest time we had people negotiating who are actually combatants on either side, who had really a long list of atrocities committed by both sides.

And of course the negotiations have very high premium of trust.

But I think it was a wise decision for me to meet with the chairman Murad in Tokyo, I think I wanted to push it further along. And a little over a year, about a year and two months, we've got this framework agreement that they have been working on since I understand about 10 years.

But in this last push, it's something that - it was really gratifying to see a lot of the people who were so against the agreement present and expressing their support. So it seems that everybody is very hopeful and the degree of trust exhibited by both sides is really heart warming.

Now the issue of policing: as they say, the devil is in the details.

And I think I'd like to look at it more as the points where we agree rather than there is still some clarification in certain aspects. So among the myriad of issues, there are two or three left that possibly could be contentious. But given the mindset of both the negotiating powers, I think the resolution of both would be forthcoming.

KESHA WEST: Are you concerned about a security vacuum in that region?

BENIGNO AQUINO: Not really because they are cognisant also of the fact there has to be transition. Part and parcel of giving confidence to those who will support this endeavour will be ensuring that security aspect.

And we don't even have to talk in abstractions. The MILF (Moro Islamic Liberation Front) has really assisted us in securing the populace. Especially a few weeks ago, the BIFF (Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighter) was threatening to unleash a spate of violence and they were very effective in helping the security forces minimise these disruptive activities.

KESHA WEST: Peace accord may resolve one of the security issues in the southern Philippines. It's by no means the only security issue, there are still frequent kidnappings for ransom, there are murders from groups such as Abu Saif and Jemaah Islamiyah. How close is the government to regaining control in some of these lawless areas?

BENIGNO AQUINO: From purely the Rizal government's concern to suddenly having the major player having an active part in arresting all of these lawless elements adds a great degree of competency and ability for both parties.

In the sense eventually there they will be primarily responsible for internal security provision of safe havens, support mechanisms will no longer be there for groups like Abu Saif.

Jemaah Islamiyah is still a presence, but a very diminished presence. I'm told intel reports tell me that those established relationships in the Afghanistan conflict against the Russians have been neutralised, are no longer active. The links are not as solid as they once were.

So, again, instead of just the government's security forces actively seeking all of this we now have a new partner. And a very capable partner who is indigenous to the terrain who will be even more formidable opponent to all of these lawless bands. Hence we expect that to be resolve and minimised to a greatest degree.

KESHA WEST: If I can turn to the tensions in the South China Sea. Under your presidency the Philippines seems to have taken a much tougher line when it comes to claiming what it believes is its territory. Why the more robust policy?

BENIGNO AQUINO: The first issue that we had to deal with Reed Bank. We had granted the licence to explore to this energy company and whilst they were conducting the survey, there was supposed to be a Chinese vessel that shooed them away from the area.

So that was the start. I don't think we have changed any of our policies. But I think at this point of my duty or my sworn duty is to protect the national territory. So we're just stating what has been agreed upon for instance in an international agreement called the United Nations Convention of the Law of the Seas to which China and ourselves are both parties to.

What I think has changed is that China is a bit more assertive with their so-called nine-dash theory. Well that is in conflict with (inaudible). They are the regional super power. They are a super power.

And I don't think anybody can point to evidence that says the Philippines have been very aggressive. Rather, we are in the face of aggression. We have had to stand our ground and protect our rights otherwise nobody will be protecting our rights.

KESHA WEST: So you blame China for raising the stakes but Manila has been accused by some of being a proxy for American interests.

BENIGNO AQUINO: Well you know Reed Bank, or Recto Bank as we call it, is a mere 80 miles from Palawan. And we say if we don't issue a protest after the shoeing away of this vessel that was in our exclusive economic zone under our laws then what would the next step have been? When should we have objected? When it was 40 miles from Palawan, 10 miles or beyond Palawan?

Any country worthy of the name should be able to stand up for that which it believes is right.

KESHA WEST: So you do deny though you have been driven by American influence?

BENIGNO AQUINO: We are driven by Philippine interests.

KESHA WEST: Do you think that Australia needs to play a more pivotal role in helping resolve this issue in the South China Sea?

BENIGNO AQUINO: I believe so. This is a regional power. It is a wealthy nation, with a very mature democracy and its interests cannot be divorced from that of the region. Stability for all provides prosperity for all.
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