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Serious affront

Sierra Madre’s sorry-looking hulk has long been a sore spot in China’s ambitions in the contested waterway.



Naked physical aggression is bluntly what the 16 November Ayungin Shoal incident is all about. No use denying this cold hard fact.

Certainly, forthright outrage and serious threats to put Philippine-China relations on ice are called for in this latest incident over China’s expansive claims of the South China Sea.

Called for, too, since this is the first time China’s Coast Guard deliberately used physical force against unarmed Filipino vessels within our territory.

Ayungin Shoal, internationally known as Second Thomas Shoal, lies off western Palawan and is internationally recognized as within our exclusive economic zone.

As is known by now, two Chinese Coast Guard ships effectively blocked two wooden-hulled Filipino vessels ferrying supplies for a Filipino military outpost on the submerged shoal.

A third Chinese Coast Guard ship, however, “water cannoned the two vessels for an hour,” transforming the whole incident from mere bullying into that of belligerence.

Water cannons are lethal weapons.

Most people usually consider high-velocity water bombardment — familiarly resorted to by firetrucks during fires and riots — as non-lethal compared to missiles and guns.

In recent years, however, civilian merchant vessels are sporting water cannons. Commonly used as an anti-piracy device, shipboard water cannons deliver a powerful and impenetrable stream of water that blows away pirates attempting to board a ship.

A remotely-controlled water cannon can also quickly fill boats with water, slowing hostage-taking buccaneers and hindering their boat’s maneuverability.

White-painted Coast Guard ships — always considered as civilian vessels in contrast to the gray-painted navy ships — rely mostly on water cannons as enforcement measures rather than onboard armaments.

Fortunately, no one was hurt in the incident, but National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon said an outrigger of one of the Filipino boats was damaged.

The two supply boats, nonetheless, had to abort their mission to provide food to the marines on board the derelict Philippine Navy ship BRP Sierra Madre.

The military deliberately ran aground the BRP Sierra Madre at the submerged Ayugin shoal in 1999 to fortify the country’s claim of the Shoal and provide shelter for a small contingent of marines.

The Sierra Madre is effectively now a rusty shipwreck, but the Philippine military has not decommissioned it, making it a government facility where any attack on it is tantamount to an assault against the country.

Sierra Madre’s sorry-looking hulk has long been a sore spot in China’s ambitions in the contested waterway.

Associated Press’ Jim Gomez, for instance, reported that in 2014 “the military invited more than a dozen journalists, including from The Associated Press, on a resupply mission to the shoal in a bid to draw global attention to what Philippine officials have called China’s bullying tactics.

“Two Chinese Coast Guard ships then tried to block the slow-moving, military-chartered vessel carrying the journalists, with one cutting dangerously through the Philippine ship’s path twice.

“The Chinese Coast Guard warned the Philippine vessel by radio to turn back, saying it was illegally venturing into Chinese territory.

“The Chinese ships blew their horns intimidatingly, but the boat managed to maneuver toward the Sierra Madre through shallow waters dotted with rocky coral outcrops, preventing the Chinese ship from pursuing.”

By now it’s clear, says maritime expert Jay Batongbacal, the Chinese blockade is evidently trying to starve out an isolated military outpost. A “strategy to force the Philippines to voluntarily withdraw and/or abandon the shoal by making it difficult, if not impossible, to maintain our troops’ presence” there.

Forcing the marines to decamp from the derelict isn’t likely, however.

Despite being thwarted, defense officials vow to make another supply run this week even without Coast Guard and Navy escorts.

Their resolve apparently bolstered after other countries gave unqualified support to our vehement protests against China.

The United States, for instance, echoed Locsin’s reminder to China “that a public vessel is covered by the Philippines-United States Mutual Defense Treaty.”

Japan, Australia, France and Germany have also backed the country’s rules-based posture against China.

China apparently blinked. Chinese vessels have left Ayugin Shoal and Defense Chief Delfin Lorenzana said he was assured by Chinese officials China won’t interfere in the next supply run.

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