Aquino fails to apologize over botched rescue of HK hostages
BEIJING – Philippine President Benigno Aquino said on Tuesday the nation’s military would play a more prominent role in the South China Sea amid tense territorial disputes with China and days before his visit to Beijing.
Aquino made the remarks as the Philippine navy’s newest warship sailed into Manila Bay from the United States.
“This ship symbolizes our newly acquired ability to guard, protect, and if necessary, fight for the interests of our country,” Aquino said in a welcoming speech as the refurbished Hamilton-class cutter Gregorio del Pilar dropped anchor.
“This is just the beginning. Expect more good news because we will not stop at one ship.”
Aquino said that the former US Coast Guard cutter, which the navy said was turned into a patrol frigate, would protect the nation’s capability to “guard our exclusive economic zone as well as the (oil and gas) service contract areas”.
Tensions have flared this year between Manila and Beijing amid territorial disputes in the South China Sea.
The Philippines has appealed to its longtime ally the US for help in upgrading its military. Although it is 46 years old, the 3,390-ton warship is the most capable in the Philippine navy.
Aquino on Tuesday refused to attend a memorial ceremony just a block away from the naval site, where relatives made tearful pleas for an apology and compensation from the Philippine government over a botched attempt to rescue Hong Kong tourists last year.
On Aug 23, 2010, a Philippine ex-policeman hijacked a bus carrying 21 Hong Kong tourists and four Filipinos in Manila in a bid to be reinstated in the police force. Eight Hong Kong hostages and the hijacker were killed when police stormed the bus.
The incident triggered public outrage in China and also overshadowed Manila’s relations with Beijing.
So far no one has been charged criminally for lapses in the police operation and only one official has been fired.
Aquino told reporters after addressing the naval event that he regretted the tragedy but ruled out an apology.
“An apology connotes that the state did them grievous harm. I don’t think that is correct.
“We sympathize with them. We really wished it did not happen,” he said.
Despite the disputes, Manila and Beijing have arranged a four-day state visit by Aquino to China starting on Aug 30. Both sides have underscored the importance of the visit.
Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario said that despite some differences, China remains as a “close neighbor, a good friend and an important partner”.
Del Rosario said the visit will see talks on the full implementation of the two nations’ Joint Action Plan, which is focused on strategic cooperation, and the roadmap and five-year plan on trade and investment development.
Philippine Department of Trade and Industry Undersecretary Adrian Cristobal said that China is one of the key emerging markets his country is targeting for its exports, particularly as Manila’s biggest trading partners, Japan and the US, are experiencing economic difficulties.
Last year, total trade between the Philippines and China hit $10.31 billion. Philippine exports to China in 2010 surged 94.61 percent year-on-year.
Chen Qinghong, a researcher on Filipino studies with the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, said despite the quarrels the Philippines knows “it is economic development and people’s welfare that truly count”.
“For that reason I’m not pessimistic about Manila’s ties with Beijing,” he said.