China digs up details vs PH on Ayungin

Paterno Esmaquel II
Prepare for 'consequences,' China says, as it warns the Philippines against 'further possible provocations' in the South China Sea

'PREPARE FOR CONSEQUENCES.' Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei says the Philippines broke its promise to withdraw a stranded ship from the disputed Ayungin Shoal, which China calls the Ren'ai Reef. File photo by AFP

MANILA, Philippines – Warning Manila to prepare for “consequences,” China armed itself with more details against the Philippines in its latest statement on the disputed Ayungin (Second Thomas) Shoal.

In a media briefing on Monday, March 17, China listed specific promises that previous Philippine administrations supposedly made in relation to Ayungin, which Beijing calls the Ren’ai Reef.

For China, the Aquino administration should heed these promises whether or not aligned with the Philippines’ current policy. Otherwise, the Philippines risks its “credibility.”

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei explained that the Philippines, in 1999, made an “unequivocal commitment to China on many occasions that it would tow away the ship” grounded in Ayungin.

Hong said the Philippines claimed the ship was grounded due to “malfunction.”

Hong said the Philippines, in 2003, “made another solemn commitment that it would not become the first country to violate” the Declaration on the Conduct (DOC) of Parties in the South China Sea in connection to Ayungin.

The DOC includes a commitment to “undertake to exercise self-restraint in the conduct of activities that would complicate or escalate disputes and affect peace and stability including, among others, refraining from action of inhabiting on the presently uninhabited islands, reefs, shoals, cays, and other features and to handle their differences in a constructive manner.”

On the Philippines’ supposed promises, the years cited by China involve the Estrada administration from 1998 to 2001, and the Arroyo administration from 2001 to 2010.

It was only under President Benigno Aquino III that the Philippines filed a historic case against China over the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea). China views Aquino as “provocative” compared to the “more receptive” Arroyo, a think-tank said. (READ: Why China prefers Arroyo over Aquino)

‘Shocking’ contradiction

For China, however, Aquino’s stance doesn’t matter. If a previous administration made a promise, China said the Philippines should fulfill it. (READ: China on Ayungin: PH broke its promise)

“More shockingly,” though, Hong said, the Philippines is now contradicting itself. He said from promising to remove a “malfunctioning” ship, the Philippines is now claiming the ship was deliberately grounded in 1999 “with the aim of illegally occupying Ren’ai Reef.”

“The sitting Philippine government was not the one 15 years ago, but as a country, the Philippines should honor its commitment. Otherwise, it will lose credibility to the international community,” Hong said.

He added China “will never allow any form of occupation of the Ren’ai Reef nor violation of the DOC by the Philippine side.”

“China watches closely and is highly vigilant on further possible provocations in the South China Sea by the Philippines and it must bear all the consequences arising therefrom,” he said.

No categorical denial

The Philippines’ Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA), for its part, has not categorically denied China’s claim that it agreed to pull out of Ayungin in 1999.

In a two-paragraph statement last Friday, March 14, the DFA only said the stranded ship was placed in Ayungin before the DOC was signed in 2002.

The DFA said: “The BRP Sierra Madre, a commissioned Philippine naval vessel, was placed in Ayungin Shoal in 1999 to serve as a permanent Philippine government installation in response to China’s illegal occupation of Mischief Reef in 1995. This was prior to the signing of the Declaration of Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea in 2002.”

“The Philippines reiterates that Ayungin Shoal is part of its continental shelf over which the Philippines has sovereign rights and jurisdiction,” it added.

SEA BASTION. This undated handout photo released by the Philippine government on May 23, 2013 shows an aerial view of BRP Sierra Madre, a 100-meter (328 foot) amphibious vessel built for the US in 1944 and acquired by the Filipino navy in 1976, grounded at Second Thomas Shoal in the Spratly Islands. AFP Photo/Philippine Government

A day before the DFA issued this statement, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang said the Philippines had made an “unequivocal commitment” to tow the ship away from Ayungin, which the Chinese government calls the Ren’ai Reef.

“However, the Philippines is yet to live up to its promise and haul away the rusty ship. To make matters worse, it sent two ships to transport construction materials to the Ren’ai Reef, with the aim of building facilities and ‘maintaining a presence’ at China’s island,” Qin said.

The Ayungin dispute heated up after the so-called “water cannon incident,” which involves China driving away Filipino fishermen from the disputed Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal using a water cannon. (READ: Water cannon incident can be used vs China)

The Ayungin and Panatag incidents came before the deadline of Manila’s written pleading in its case against Beijing. (READ: PH faces major hurdle in China case)

Experts have warned the Philippines about a possible backlash because of this pleading. – Rappler.com

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Paterno Esmaquel II

Paterno R. Esmaquel II, news editor of Rappler, specializes in covering religion and foreign affairs. He obtained his MA Journalism degree from Ateneo and later finished MSc Asian Studies (Religions in Plural Societies) at RSIS, Singapore. For story ideas or feedback, email him at pat.esmaquel@rappler.com.