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MANILA, Philippines – A day after Philippine senators questioned the presence of the US military in a resupply mission to Ayungin Shoal, the Philippine Coast Guard’s spokesperson for the West Philippine Sea said it was “disheartening” to hear doubts about their capability to defend the country’s territory on their own.
“We will continue to serve and protect our exclusive economic zone, irrespective of any external assistance. It is disheartening to hear doubts cast on our capabilities to carry out this duty without the support of other external actors,” Commodore Jay Tarriela said in a post on X on Wednesday, September 13. His statement was reposted by the PCG on its official Facebook account a day later.
Tarriela was in a Senate hearing on the West Philippine Sea, where senators Robinhood Padilla and Ronald dela Rosa questioned if it was appropriate for the US Navy to be present at the West Philippine Sea during a Philippine resupply mission to Marines stationed at the grounded BRP Sierra Madre in Ayungin Shoal. The mission involved the PCG as escorts to civilian boats commissioned by the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP).
“The disputes in the South China Sea should not be framed solely as a competition between powerful nations, as this denies us our independence and disregards our legitimate interests,” said Tarriela, echoing the position expressed by President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. in his remarks at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit Retreat in Jakarta, Indonesia.
Tarriela added, “The Filipino people can rest assured that the PCG is resolute in our commitment to safeguarding our exclusive economic zone.”
In an interview with CNN Philippines, National Security Council Assistant Director General and spokesperson Jonathan Malaya said that while US plane was flying over the area during the last two resupply missions of the Philippines, only Filipinos were involved in the actual mission – in particular, in braving harassment by Chinese Coast Guard and maritime militia.
A US Poseidon plane – used in reconnaissance and maritime patrol missions – was present during a late August and mid-September resupply missions to the BRP Sierra Madre. Resupply missions are vital for the small team of Marines stationed at the crumbling BRP Sierra Madre, a grounded World War II ship that serves as the Philippines’ outpost in the West Philippine Sea.
China has regularly harassed and blocked Philippine ships on resupply missions to Ayungin. These incidents grabbed the spotlight especially in August, thanks to the PCG’s efforts to publicize China’s harassment of Philippine vessels, including bringing media along to resupply missions or by releasing footage from these missions.
In early August, the resupply mission did not push through after Chinese Coast Guard and maritime militia blocked, harassed, then used water cannons against PCG and AFP-commissioned boats. The Philippines tried again in late August and in mid-September 2023. While those missions were successful, Philippine boats still encountered harassment by Chinese vessels.
Ayungin Shoal is within the Philippines’ EEZ, according to a 2016 arbitral ruling. China has refused to recognize that ruling and had recently released a 2023 version of China’s Standard Map, which features a 10-dash line that encompasses the entire South China Sea. The Philippines and other concerned countries have rejected his.
China has also become more blatant about its use of maritime militia, said Tarriela. “It has become more obvious that the Chinese maritime militia is now taking orders from the [Chinese Coast Guard] to actively block PCG vessels as it approaches Ayungin Shoal,” Tarriela said in an interview on ANC’s Headstart on Thursday, September 14.
The PCG, while at both at the forefront of the Philippines’ defense of the West Philippine Sea, operates on a paltry budget. The force is also in dire need of equipment upgrades. Tarriela said these setbacks would not deter them.
“Despite any limitations we may encounter, we are unwavering in our determination to patrol and protect our waters with the assets available to us. Your PCG will remain steadfast in our duty to serve our flag and our people. Dahil sa West Philippine Sea ang yaman nito ay para sa Pilipino (Because the West Philippine Sea and its resources are for the Filipino),” he added.
China has a sweeping claim of the South China Sea – demonstrated by its new 2023 map. Nations in the Indo-Pacific and beyond have a stake in this claim. Aside from China’s overlaps with the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia, and Taiwan, among others, the South China Sea is crucial because it is a major trade route. – Rappler.com