July 4, 2022
MANILA — The China Coast Guard (CCG) has warned Filipino troops stationed on a rusting warship at Ayungin (Second Thomas) Shoal in the West Philippine Sea to “seriously consider the stand of the Chinese government” or else, there will be “consequences” if they insist on “making trouble.”
The Inquirer joined a rotation and resupply (RORE) mission to the area on June 21 and saw how the CCG behaved as if they owned the place, tailing Philippine supply boats and warning them against bringing in construction materials.
“To warship No. 57, we hope that you should seriously consider the solemn stand of the Chinese government. If you insist on making trouble [in] your own way, you will take responsibility for all these consequences arising therefore,” a Chinese ship with bow No. 5304 said over the radio.
One of two CCG vessels that shadowed the two supply boats on their way to the shoal’s entrance, it stationed itself a nautical mile away as supplies were being unloaded from wooden boats Unaizah May 2 and 3 and transferred to BRP Sierra Madre (LS-57) through ropes and pulleys.
One of the Filipino soldiers aboard the World War II-vintage landing ship tank that serves as the country’s military detachment in Ayungin dismissed the threat, saying: “They’re just bullying [us].”
The incident appeared to be the first time the CCG made a veiled threat in a radio warning to the Sierra Madre.
A government official familiar with the situation later told the Inquirer that the CCG could have made the warning after seeing from afar that “various hull maintenance materials” were among the supplies being offloaded.
Before reaching the shoal’s entrance, the two Filipino supply boats had been told by another CCG ship, with bow No. 4302, over the radio that they were being allowed “to proceed on your mission to bring food supplies” on the condition that “there are no construction materials.”
Delfin Lorenzana, the defense secretary at the time, said that they would not be stopped from doing RORE missions and repairs on the ship, which continues to be in active service.
“We have been resupplying that detachment for the past 20 years. Our people need to repair their living quarters,” he said in his final press conference on June 28.
“They have a lot of conditions and I’ve been telling the [Department of Foreign Affairs]. So they’re submitting, filing a protest. But we will continue to resupply the Sierra Madre. We will not stop,” Lorenzana said.
His successor, officer in charge Undersecretary Jose Faustino Jr., did not respond to requests for comment.
Symbol of sovereignty
The 78-year-old BRP Sierra Madre, the country’s symbol of sovereignty at Ayungin, served the United States as USS Harnett County and Vietnam as RVNS My Tho before it was commissioned by the Philippine Navy in 1976. The warship was deliberately beached in Ayungin in 1999 to serve as the Filipino presence in the shoal.
On one section of the ship ravaged by rust through the years, a message had been painted: “We do so much with so little.”
True enough, the small number of troops deployed here are making the most of what they have. To keep them entertained, the helipad has been transformed into a basketball court.
But on the outside, the ship is dotted with holes and looks as if it could fall apart at any time. Inside, there are signs of efforts to keep it together. Some parts of the ship are covered with steel plates to prevent soldiers from stepping into gaping holes. But it’s still a race against time to keep the decrepit Sierra Madre from falling into the sea.
The military plans to do more improvements on the warship as it does to its eight other detachments on the Kalayaan Island Group. But it’s no easy task with the watchful CCG around. In November, one of its vessels used a water cannon on Filipino supply boats after suspecting them of carrying construction materials, prompting them to abort the mission.
In April, the Chinese blocked the usual entrance to the shoal with fishing nets and buoys. In May, they deployed two rubber boats and shadowed Philippine supply vessels inside the shoal, stopping some 500 meters away from the Sierra Madre.
Beijing has been trying for years to prevent the Navy’s resupply missions but over the past months, it has displayed new tactics. It has accused Manila of “trespassing” into its waters, which it calls Ren’ai Jiao, and even demanded the removal of the warship.
“Manila needs to proceed as planned to ensure BRP Sierra Madre… remains safe for the Filipinos guarding Ayungin Shoal. No agreement is being violated,” said Jeffrey Ordaniel, director for Maritime Security at the Honolulu-based think tank Pacific Forum and an associate professor at Tokyo International University.
He said the Philippines should coordinate with its allies and partners to keep the planned repairs as a non-event. “Vietnam and Malaysia have been conducting repairs and even land reclamation of features they occupy. Nothing particularly unusual in repairing a ship,” Ordaniel told the Inquirer.
Equally important was the coordination of resupply missions with the United States. “BRP Sierra Madre remains a commissioned vessel of the Philippine Navy, which means an attack on it would trigger alliance commitments per Article V of the US-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty,” he said.
Chinese vessels are always around the shoal, but they are “most active” when there is a Rore mission, Lt. j.g. Jefferson Vega, the outgoing officer in charge of BRP Sierra Madre, told the Inquirer.
The military uses Navy vessels for RORE missions to its eight outposts in the West Philippine Sea. But at Ayungin, a pair of 24-meter wooden boats carry out that job to avoid raising tensions with the presence of gray ships.
Supplies are brought in once a month, while the rotation of troops happens every two to three months. But these can take longer, especially during typhoon season.
Vega said that being deployed to the Sierra Madre was like being on any other Navy ship, except that it was stationary.
“This ship literally does not move. We do patrols through rubber boats. But we have the same routine like other ships,” he said.
“We have basic tasks. If there is no more pending work, we do spearfishing, work out at the gym, or play basketball,” he added.
It also helps that there is internet access for the troops, making communication with their families easier.
Ayungin is a submerged reef located 194 kilometers (105 nautical miles) off Palawan that is within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ). Still, China is asserting its claim over the reef despite it being 1,285 kilometers (694 nautical miles) from Hainan, its southernmost province.
Under the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, coastal states are allotted 370 kilometers (200 nautical miles) EEZ from their shores. The 2016 arbitral ruling, which dismissed China’s nine-dash line claims in the South China Sea, explicitly stated that Ayungin Shoal is within the Philippines’ EEZ.
China claims the entire South China Sea, including the West Philippine Sea. The Philippines, China, Brunei, Vietnam, Taiwan, and Malaysia have overlapping maritime claims.
“They believe this is theirs. But if we refer to international law, we’re the ones entitled to these waters. That’s why we’re here,” Vega said.
There is a different sense of pride in being deployed at Ayungin, he said. “At first, there is a sense of pity when you see the ship from the outside. But it’s different when you’re inside.”
“Our troops won’t leave this place. If we do, the Chinese will take over. No matter who you ask from our troops here, they will say they will not leave,” Vega said.