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China resumes saber-rattling at Ayungin

Second mission to resupply BRP Sierra Madre a success even if China Coast Guard ship shadowed two private boats manned by Philippine Navy personnel

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As China watches… One of two Philippine resupply boats dock at the side of the Sierra Madre serving as an outpost at Ayungin Shoal for a handful of brave Filipino soldiers trying to assert sovereignty at West Philippine Sea. / Photograph courtesy of Department of national defense

Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana on Tuesday protested China’s continuing “intimidation and harassment” as the Philippines’ resupply boats reached the Ayungin (Second Thomas) Shoal in the West Philippine Sea (WPS) on Tuesday.

Lorenzana revealed that a China Coast Guard (CCG) ship came nearby and sent a rubber boat even closer to conduct surveillance on the Philippine operation to restock supplies like food at the BRP Sierra Madre.

Standing ground Amid renewed maritime tensions, BRP Sierra Madre, the Philippine naval vessel intentionally grounded on the reef in 1999, still serves as a bastion of Philippine sovereignty over Ayungin Shoal. / Agence France-Presse

Malacañang confirmed that the second resupply mission was successful despite the tension brought about by the CCG ship’s action.

Acting presidential spokesperson Secretary Karlo Nograles said it was a “testament and proof that we can peacefully supply and resupply our Filipino citizens there.”

The two civilian resupply boats manned by Philippine Navy personnel arrived at Ayungin at 11 a.m. yesterday, Lorenzana said.

“They are presently unloading personnel and cargo. After a couple of days, they will return to Oyster Bay,” he told reporters, adding that as the boats arrived the Chinese coast guard ship shadowed them.

The CCG ship sent a rubber boat with three persons near the Sierra Madre while the boats were unloading, and took photos and videos, the defense chief said.

“I have communicated to the Chinese ambassador that we consider these acts as a form of intimidation and harassment,” he added.

Water-cannoned
Tuesday’s resupply mission came a week after three CCG vessels blocked and water-cannoned the same boats.

Government officials led by President Rodrigo Duterte publicly voiced dismay and protested the Chinese actions that prevented the delivery of supplies and repairmen to the Sierra Madre.

The Sierra Madre is a still active Navy vessel perched on top of Ayungin’s low-tide elevation. It serves as an outpost for a handful of Filipino troops.

Elsewhere in the WPS, the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) replenished supplies in Pag-asa Island, the country’s largest occupied feature.

Commodore Armando Balilo, PCG spokesperson, said on Tuesday that the BRP Capones brought fishing gear and basic supplies for fishermen, as well as provisions for Coast Guard and policemen assigned in Pag-asa, last Saturday.

Fresh PCG personnel were also ferried to the island to relieve those who have been staying there, he said.

While underway to Pag-asa, the Capones monitored a CCG vessel about 2 nautical miles away. No radio challenge was made by that foreign vessel, Balilo said in a statement.

Vice Admiral Ramil Roberto Enriquez, AFP Western Command chief, reported there was no “untoward incident” in the mission involving the civilian boats “Unaiza Mae 1” and “Unaiza Mae 3.”

Philippine Air Force aircraft were flown to monitor the supply boats, while PCG ships sailed near Pag-asa Island to ensure they could readily respond in case of another confrontation with the Chinese vessels.

Reso assails China
Following criticism, the number of Chinese coast guard vessels in the area had gone down from three last week to two as of Saturday night, said Enriquez.

Meanwhile, a resolution has been passed in Congress to assail China’s blockade of the first resupply mission and a statement by Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian that the two Philippine supply boats “trespassed” in the area.

The resolution said Zhao’s 18 November press briefing clearly disregarded the 2016 arbitral ruling which nullified Beijing’s claims over the WPS.

It added that the incidents at Ayungin Shoal, which is within the country’s exclusive economic zone, is “but another manifestation of China’s increasing aggression and arrogance in claiming and annexing Philippine waters and territories.”

“These past years have witnessed how China converted Philippine seas and fishing grounds into military installations, how China bullied and threatened Filipino fisherfolk out of their own fishing grounds, and how China openly plundered or destroyed the country’s maritime resources,” the resolution read.

Abhorrent
President Duterte on Monday said in a summit with China that Philippine authorities “abhor” the water cannon attack and view the matter with “grave concern,” adding that the incident does not speak well of the relations between Manila and Beijing.

The Palace has denied allegations that the President’s statement was “too little, too late.”

“The DFA acted swiftly, the President spoke about the issue, and ‘yung resupply boats po natin ay nakarating sa (our resupply boats reached) Ayungin Shoal,” Nograles said.

Ayungin is among nine features in the Kalayaan Island Group occupied by the Philippines. The eight others are Parola Island, Pag-asa Island, Kota Island, Panata Island, Likas Island, Lawak Island, Patag Island and Rizal Reef.

It is located about 174 nautical miles from Puerto Princesa City in Palawan.

Senator and presidential candidate Panfilo Lacson lauded Duterte’s remarks at the special summit of state leaders from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the People’s Republic of China.

“I’m thankful to the President, he came up with a very strong statement. For the first time, we heard a strong statement from the President and what could be a more appropriate venue than the ASEAN Summit?” Lacson, the chairperson of the Senate Defense Committee, said in a television interview.

“Even if belatedly said, I think it’s good he said it in a venue where ASEAN leaders are listening. For me, no matter how late, it’s still good that the President issued a strong statement, at least to awaken not just China, but other stronger allies,” he said.

Lacson visited the area on 20 November — days after the incident transpired on 16 November. He recalled personally experiencing the “hostility” of Chinese authorities after his team received a warning from the foreign navy while approaching the shoal.

He likewise received an “unusual” text message upon landing, saying: “Welcome to China.”

“It wasn’t unexpected because even before we flew out of Puerto Princesa, I was already warned by the Western Command commander that we might be challenged as ‘you approach the Pag-asa airstrip.’ We were already anticipating that we would be challenged,” he said.

“It was more anger than fear. In the first place, we’re not backing out. We were within our territory,” he added.

Also joining the call for the Philippines to continue asserting its interests at WPS was Senator Christopher “Bong” Go who said the Ayungin Shoal “is an integral part of the country.”

“Let us fight for our rights in all parts of our country through proper and peaceful means,” Go said as he called on stakeholders to be “responsible members of the international community.”

“I urge all stakeholders to exercise restraint and abide by their commitments and responsibilities under international law,” he said.

with MJ Blancaflor and Sundy Locus

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