October 6, 2023
MANILA – Chinese vessels once again harassed and attempted to block Philippine ships on a resupply mission en route to Ayungin, or Second Thomas Shoal, in the West Philippine Sea on Wednesday, but the Filipinos were able to complete their mission, officials said.
Two wooden boats used by the Philippine Navy delivered fresh provisions to the BRP Sierra Madre, a grounded warship that serves as a military outpost in the shoal, “despite attempts by a significant number of China Coast Guard (CCG) and Chinese maritime militia vessels to block, harass and interfere,” the National Task Force on the West Philippine Sea (WPS) said on Wednesday evening.
“These missions are a legitimate exercise of the administrative functions of the Philippine government over the WPS, in line with the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, the 2016 Arbitral Award, and domestic laws,” it said, without offering other details about the operation.
The Philippines last completed a rotation and reprovisioning operation to the grounded ship on Sept. 8. A month earlier, CCG vessels fired water cannons at a Philippine supply boat during a similar attempt, preventing it from bringing food and other provisions to the soldiers manning the Sierra Madre. A small number of troops live on board the old navy transport ship, which the Philippines grounded on the shoal in 1999 to reinforce its sovereignty claim.
The task force said the latest resupply mission and maintenance of the Sierra Madre were “part of regular operations in line with domestic and international law and ensures safety and well-being of our stationed personnel.”
“The administration of President Ferdinand R. Marcos Jr. will remain steadfast in adhering to a rules-based international order,” it added.
Ray Powell, a maritime security expert and director of SeaLight, a website tracking the events in the South China Sea through satellite data, said the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) ships BRP Cabra (MRRV 4409) and BRP Sindangan (MRRV 4407) escorted the two supply boats.
At least three CCG ships were in the area and 12 Chinese militia vessels were deployed to “enforce [a] blockade,” he said on X social network.
The Philippine Navy’s BRP Ramon Alcaraz (PS-16) was also in the vicinity to support the Philippine ships, Powell said.
Beijing condemned the Philippine resupply mission, saying the vessels had entered its waters in the Spratly Islands illegally.
“Philippine supply ships and two coast guard ships entered the waters … in China’s Nansha Islands without permission from the Chinese government,” CCG spokesperson Gan Yu said in a post on its website, using China’s name for the Spratlys.
The CCG said in its post that it issued stern warnings and added it firmly opposed the Philippine transport of materials to the ship that “sits on the beach” illegally.
Beijing has told the Philippines to tow the Sierra Madre away but Manila has rejected the demand.
The atoll in the area is known as Ayungin in the Philippines, while China calls it Renai Reef. Ayungin is a low-tide elevation about 194 kilometers off Palawan province.
It lies about 37 km northwest of Panganiban (Mischief) Reef also within the country’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ), which China seized in 1995 and transformed into a massive military outpost capable of launching missiles.
The Philippines in 2013 brought an arbitral case against China before the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague, the Netherlands.
Three years later, the arbitration court upheld the Philippines’ sovereign rights to fish and exploit resources within its 370-km EEZ and rejected China’s sweeping claims over practically the entire South China Sea.
Beijing, however, has refused to acknowledge the ruling.
China claims sovereignty over almost the entire sea, pointing to a line on its maps that cuts into the EEZs of Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia.
On Aug. 5, one of two Philippine supply boats on another mission to Ayungin was forced to turn back after CCG vessels fired water cannons at it, on suspicion that it was carrying construction materials to reinforce the crumbling warship.
The actions of the CCG vessels drew condemnation from the Philippines and its allies, including the United States.
The resupply mission and the Chinese interference came as the navies of the Philippines and the United States were in the middle of their largest joint drills in the country’s eastern seaboard.Also participating in the exercise, which will run from Oct. 2 to Oct. 13, are Australia, Canada, France, Japan, Malaysia, United Kingdom and Indonesia.
Nearly 2,000 personnel are taking part in the annual “Sama-Sama” (together) Exercise, “bigger than past iterations,” according to Philippine Navy chief Vice Adm. Toribio Adaci Jr.
The exercise started in 2017 as a bilateral drill between Manila and Washington.
US 7th Fleet commander Vice Adm. Karl Thomas said the joint drills underscore the participating navies’ demonstration “as a team” of the importance of the rule of law, and a free and open Indo-Pacific.