‘Monster’ vs Magbanua: New source of tension between Philippines and China sea dispute

The presence of the largest coast guard vessels of the Philippines and China at Escoda underscores the heightening maritime conflict between the two countries.

Nestor Corrales

Nestor Corrales

Philippines Daily Inquirer


Neither one of the two vessels has budged since July 3: the Philippine Coast Guard's BRP Teresa Magbanua and China Coast Guard vessel 5901. PHOTO: PHILIPPINE COAST GUARD/PHILIPPINE DAILY INQUIRER

July 8, 2024

MANILA – A Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) official on Saturday said that while China’s largest coast guard ship was not moving out of the waters of Escoda (Sabina) Shoal, neither was the BRP Teresa Magbanua, the biggest PCG vessel, sailing away from the atoll within the country’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ).

The 12,000-ton, 165-meter China Coast Guard (CCG) ship, the largest coast guard vessel in the world and nicknamed “The Monster,” dropped anchor at the shoal on July 3 and was still there on Saturday, Commodore Jay Tarriela, the PCG spokesperson for the West Philippine Sea said at a news briefing.

The 97-meter Teresa Magbanua, the PCG’s most modern vessel, has been stationed at Escoda since April in response to the presence of Chinese maritime militias and suspected Chinese reclamation activities in the area.

Repeated radio calls

The presence of the largest coast guard vessels of the Philippines and China at Escoda underscores the heightening maritime conflict between the two countries.

A satellite picture showed that the CCG-5901 was about 650 meters northeast of the Teresa Magbanua.

Since the Chinese ship arrived at the shoal, the crew of the Teresa Magbanua had constantly reminded it, through radio calls, that it was inside the country’s EEZ and told it to leave, Tarriela said.

He said the Chinese response was they had “sovereignty over these waters as well and that they are also doing a maritime law enforcement operation.”

China claims nearly all of the South China Sea, including the West Philippine Sea, waters within the Philippines’ 370-kilometer EEZ.

Beijing has declared a fishing ban in waters that cover most of the West Philippine Sea and announced that it would enforce new regulations that would allow its coast guard to arrest and detain foreigners and foreign vessels that cross its borders illegally, a move that was denounced by Manila.

On July 1, before the arrival of CCG-5901, the Armed Forces of the Philippines reported that there were two Chinese coast guard vessels, one People’s Liberation Army-Navy ship and three Chinese maritime militia boats at Escoda.

The AFP said the “Monster” had been on “intrusive patrols” in the country’s EEZ since the last week of June.

Not pulling out

Tarriela said the Chinese ship “directly encroached” on the country’s EEZ after it departed China’s Hainan Island on July 1. The ship headed directly to Ayungin (Second Thomas) Shoal then to Panganiban (Mischief) Reef where China built its largest artificial island before sailing to Escoda, he said.

China sent its biggest coast guard ship to the shoal to intimidate Teresa Magbanua into leaving the shoal, according to Tarriela. But the PCG will not order the Teresa Magbanua to return to Palawan, he said.

“With the clear guidance of our President and the intention of the commandant of the Philippine Coast Guard to maintain our presence in Escoda Shoal, we’re not going to pull out and we’re not going to be intimidated,” he said.

Tarriela did not say whether that decision was due to lessons learned when the country lost control over Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal to China after the Philippine Navy left the shoal following a two-month standoff in 2012, with the understanding that the Chinese vessels would also leave Panatag.

Escoda is about 139 km west of Palawan. About 67 km to its west is Ayungin where the grounded BRP Sierra Madre serves as an AFP outpost.

‘Permanent facility’

Escoda serves as the rendezvous point or staging area for the rotation and resupply missions to the Sierra Madre, which the Chinese have been preventing in an increasingly aggressive manner since last year.

The appearance of CCG-5901 in the Philippine EEZ came two weeks after the June 17 attack by the Chinese coast guard against a resupply mission, seriously wounding one sailor who lost a finger. The Chinese also confiscated rifles and deliberately damaged equipment on Navy boats used to deliver supplies to the Sierra Madre.

The Chinese wielded bolos, knives, spears, used tear gas, high-pitched sirens and high-powered strobe lights to disrupt the resupply mission.

The China state-run Global Times, quoting CCG spokesperson Gan Yu, accused the Philippines of bringing “a large amount of supplies and even suspected construction materials suggest that the Philippines intends to eventually establish a permanent facility” at Escoda.

According to Tarriela, “it is not our burden to de-escalate because we are always only on the receiving end of the escalatory action of the China Coast Guard.”

“We are just maintaining our presence, we are not provoking anybody, we are just carrying out our patriotic duty of maintaining our presence in the West Philippine Sea,” he said.

The PCG official also dismissed China’s claim that the Teresa Magbanua would be another permanent AFP outpost in the West Philippine Sea, similar to the Sierra Madre.

The Teresa Magbanua, Tarriela said, is the PCG’s flagship vessel and the “most expensive coast guard vessel that we have on our own inventory.”

“Outpost is something permanent. Again, this is a vessel that patrols Escoda Shoal and the immediate vicinity of Escoda Shoal,” he said.

“So, regardless of whatever comments that the Chinese are saying, whether they are implicating that this will just be another Sierra Madre or this is a way for us to violate anything as they claim, I think we don’t have to listen to them,” he added. —with a report from Inquirer Research

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