February 23, 2023
OVER AYUNGIN SHOAL, West Philippine Sea — “Welcome to China!”
Thus read a text roaming alert received by passengers of a Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) aircraft on a maritime air patrol as it approached this submerged reef located within the country’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ).
Such an advisory may be normal for travelers actually entering China, but an affront to those aboard the PCG’s Cessna Caravan as it soared above Ayungin (Second Thomas) Shoal, an underwater feature just 195 kilometers off mainland Palawan.
The Inquirer on Tuesday joined a select group of journalists on the PCG’s “maritime domain awareness” flight to keep track of Chinese incursions in the West Philippine Sea amid fresh tensions between Manila and Beijing due to the Feb. 6 laser “attack” by the China Coast Guard (CCG) on a PCG vessel.
During Tuesday’s midmorning patrol, the multirole aircraft piloted by Commodore Philipps Soria flew over the shoal three times for about 20 minutes, going as low as 91 meters (300 feet).
The 12-seater plane promptly elicited a radio challenge when it reached a spot 18 km (10 nautical miles) from the shoal, warning that the PCG aircraft was “entering the vicinity of Chinese territory” and asking the pilot to leave immediately.
‘Leave our waters’
The PCG pilot responded in kind, maintaining it was a routine flight within the Philippines’ 370-km EEZ and ordering the other side to leave the country’s waters.
A CCG ship with bow No. 5304 stood guard around a nautical mile outside the reef, while four Chinese militia vessels were anchored inside.
The PCG said it deployed an aircraft to verify information from their ship-tracking system that Chinese vessels remained near Ayungin despite the diplomatic protest filed by the Philippines.
The Philippines exercises sovereign rights and jurisdiction over Ayungin Shoal, despite China’s aggressive behavior in the surrounding waters. The Filipinos maintain their presence through the BRP Sierra Madre, a Philippine Navy warship deliberately run aground in 1999 to serve as an outpost.
But the text advisory indicated that China’s telecommunication signals were stronger in this area.
No PH signal
When the Inquirer visited the Sierra Madre in June last year, no Philippine mobile network could be detected.
Ayungin is about 37 km northwest of Panganiban (Mischief) Reef, also within the Philippine EEZ, that was seized by China from the Philippines in 1995. China has since developed it into one of its biggest artificially built islands in the Kalayaan island group, also called the Spratly chain.
The island base has a 3-km airstrip, missile shelters and hangars that could accommodate bombers.
From above, the calm blue and green waters did not give away any trace of the tense maritime incident that took place on Feb. 6, when a Chinese coast guard vessel trained a high-intensity laser on the PCG’s BRP Malapascua (MRRV-4403) and briefly blinded some crew members.
The incident triggered a diplomatic protest from the Philippine side and threats of invoking the country’s mutual defense pact with the United States, the other superpower challenging China’s dominion in the region.
Data from Washington-based think tank Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative released in late January showed that the Chinese coast guard maintained patrols near the shoal for 279 days in 2022.
“The Filipino people can rely on the PCG in realizing the commitment of our President, that we will not abandon even a square inch of the territory of the Republic of the Philippines to any foreign power,” PCG commandant Adm. Artemio Abu said in a statement a day after the flight.
Chinese vessels have been keeping an almost steady presence not only in Ayungin but also in Sabina (Escoda) Shoal, much closer to Palawan at 135 km away.
Before the PCG aircraft reached Ayungin, there were at least 26 Chinese militia vessels spread across the shoal, either scattered or grouped together.
There were also garbled radio challenges in English and Chinese issued by China over Sabina. In December, Western Command chief Vice Adm. Alberto Carlos, the most senior military officer keeping watch over the Kalayaan group, told the Inquirer that Chinese vessels had kept “a swarming presence” in Iroquois Reef and Sabina Shoal since early 2022.
Iroquois is located 237 km from Palawan’s Rizal town.
China claims nearly the entire South China Sea, including the West Philippine Sea, putting it in dispute not only with the Philippines but also with Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam over the resource-rich Kalayaan or Spratly islands.
A July 2016 ruling by an international arbitral tribunal in The Hague, Netherlands, invalidated China’s sweeping claims and upheld the Philippines’ rights over its EEZ.
Over the weekend, President Marcos repeated his pledge, in response to the Ayungin incident, that the country “will not lose one inch of its territory” to China or other powers.