January 4, 2024
MANILA – ABOARD THE BRP GREGORIO DEL PILAR, West Philippine Sea — Philippine and US Navy warships steamed toward a designated meeting point off Cabra Island in Occidental Mindoro
for a joint exercise before dawn on Wednesday.
Mild swells gently rocked the Philippine Navy patrol ship BRP Gregorio del Pilar (PS-15), a former US Coast Guard cutter working for more than half a century, as it approached the area.
But a Jiangkai-class Chinese frigate got there first.
From the Del Pilar, a radio message was sent out at first light following confirmation that the tiny blip on its radar was a foreign vessel: “Chinese Navy warship 570, you are sailing within the Philippine exclusive economic zone.
What is your intention, over?” “Philippine warship 15, this is Chinese Navy warship 570 conducting lawful activities in our territorial seas, over,” came the reply.
One more time, from the Philippine ship: “Chinese warship 570, you are within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone. Your actions will affect Philippine-Chinese relations and will be reported to concerned authorities, over.”
The exchange ended there as 570 no longer responded. 3-way encounter Shortly before 8 a.m., however, the frigate got some backup as the Chinese Luoyang-class destroyer 174 appeared in the
By then, the Del Pilar radar showed the big picture: within the drill’s “exercise box” covering 27.8 kilometers (15,000 square nautical miles) are three Philippine Navy ships, a US Navy destroyer, and two Chinese warships.
The three-way encounter marked Day One of the “maritime cooperative activity” (MCA) between the Philippines and the United States, as the two countries stepped up cooperation in the face of Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea.
The Inquirer was among the media organizations invited by the Armed Forces of the Philippines as observers.
The Del Pilar and landing dock BRP Davao del Sur (LD-602) left El Nido, Palawan, on Monday, New Year’s Day, for a three-day exercise with the United States set for Tuesday until Thursday.
Del Pilar’s sister ship, the BRP Ramon Alcaraz (PS-16), sailed from Subic port the same day. On Tuesday, however, the US side asked for a 24-hour delay due to “operational requirements.”
Del Pilar instead spent Tuesday conducting maritime patrols in the West Philippine Sea before heading to the rendezvous point the following day.
On Wednesday, US Navy destroyer USS Sterett (DDG- 104), one of the escort ships of the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson (CVN-70), was the only American ship to arrive for the exercises.
Two other US warships and the USS Carl Vinson were expected to join but did not show up due to “operational necessity.”
The scheduled photo exercise and gunnery exercises were thus canceled and the three-day activity was shortened to two, with the Philippine Navy ships and the USS Sterett limiting their activity to a passing exercise.
According to Western Command chief Vice Adm. Alberto Carlos, he and other Philippine military officials were supposed to fly out from the Del Pilar to the USS Carl Vinson on Thursday
to observe the operations of US fighter jets as part of the MCA.
“Unfortunately, they did not give specifics (why the other activities were canceled). They just said that ‘due to some operational necessity,’ they have to reallocate some of their forces to other tasks,” Carlos said in an interview on board the Del Pilar.
He said they were “adjusting to the operational situation on the ground.”
Still, Carlos said, “This is a good training opportunity for both forces. We adjust our operations based on the operational conditions on the ground … The lesson learned is we will always look for an opportunity to enhance our interoperability, so whatever opportunity that we get, we are always ready to do that.
“Today, unfortunately, the US forces are available but there was an operational necessity, so on to the next opportunity,” he added.
The presence of Chinese ships shadowing Philippine and US vessels did not interfere with the exercises, Carlos said.
“We are still doing our operations. They are not obstructing our movement … they are monitoring us here in the training area, but this is our exclusive economic zone. We challenged them, but they said they are operating within their jurisdictional area—which is false. We have the jurisdiction over this area because this is within our exclusive economic zone,” he said.
This week’s drills were the second iteration of the MCA, which was launched in November last year amid renewed tensions between Manila and Beijing in the West Philippine Sea.
China has ignored a 2016 arbitral ruling that invalidated its sweeping claims in the South China Sea and upheld Philippine rights over its exclusive economic zone.
Defense Secretary Gilberto Teodoro Jr. earlier said more joint patrols with allies like the United States are expected in 2024, with plans to expand them into multilateral exercises.