Philippines-US relations

Much ado over nothing? Balikatan sinking of China-made ship ‘coincidental,’ says Navy

Bea Cupin

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Much ado over nothing? Balikatan sinking of China-made ship ‘coincidental,’ says Navy

BALIKATAN. Armed Forces of the Philippines Chief of Staff Gen. Andres Centino and United States embassy Chargé d’affaires Heather Variava, lead the kick-off of Balikatan 38-202 during ceremonies at the AFP Command Officers Club in Camp Aguinaldo on April 11, 2023.

Angie de Silva/Rappler

Like last year, the highlight of Balikatan 2024 will be the sinking of a decommissioned vessel

That by early May 2024, joint forces of the Philippines and the United States will be sinking a decommissioned China-made Philippine oil tanker is not a “ludicrous performance” or a show of “provocative intent” – it’s simply a coincidence, the Navy said.

Commodore Roy Vincent Trinidad, spokesperson of the Philippine Navy for the West Philippine Sea was quick to dismiss malice behind choosing the MT Lake Caliraya as the subject of a sinking activity for the 2024 Exercise Balikatan, or the yearly military drills between Manila and Washington.

The sinking exercise is among the last and biggest of the three-week-long war games and will see the militaries and assets of the two treaty-allies working together to sink the oil tanker.

“It’s not complicated, it’s coincidental,” said Trinidad, who just happened to be celebrating his birthday on Tuesday, April 23, a day after Balikatan was officially kicked off.

His boss, Navy Chief Vice Admiral Toribio Adaci Jr. said the same.

“Any attachment, if ever there is any, doesn’t matter…. It’s an old Navy vessel that was decommissioned,” explained the three-star general during a press briefing at the Navy headquarters.

The Philippines had earlier confirmed that the MT Lake Caliraya, once called the BRP Lake Caliraya, would be the subject of the Balikatan drill. The choice has ruffled feathers in Beijing, with state-run Global Times calling it, in an editorial, a “ludicrous performance by Manila” that supposedly “[shows] clear provocative intent.”

What the hawkish Global Times leaves out is that the Caliraya, which was once a Philippine National Oil Company vessel, had long been scheduled to be the star of a sinking activity – way back July 2023, before tensions between China and the Philippines increased in the West Philippine Sea.

Caliraya was decommissioned by the Navy in December 2020, alongside other older vessels.

“We found it appropriate to decommission [the Lake Caliraya] so as not to incur expenses on its maintenance,” said Adaci. Besides, decommissioned Navy ships are routinely used in sinking exercises, be it Balikatan or other military exercises, added Adaci.

In the 2023 Balikatan, Philippine and US forces jointly sank a decommissioned Philippine Navy corvette in Zambales. This year, the sinking activity will be happening in Ilocos Norte.

That the Global Times is reacting strongly to the planned sinking of a ship that was built back in 2007 should be no surprise. Beijing has been stepping up its rhetoric on the West Philippine Sea, on the Philippines’ defense and foreign policy decisions, and many other things, really, as tensions have ramped up between the two countries.

China claims almost all of the South China Sea, totally ignoring a 2016 Arbitral Award that deemed its claim invalid. Chinese vessels are regulars across the vast South China Sea, especially in features within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone.

Beijing’s reaction to Balikatan goes beyond editorials posted on its state-run news outfits.

The Navy also confirmed an increase in Chinese ships – mostly its maritime militia fleet – in the week leading up to Balikatan. The Philippines, US, and France are set to sail in the West Philippine Sea for maritime drills under Balikatan. –

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Bea Cupin

Bea is a senior multimedia reporter who covers national politics. She's been a journalist since 2011 and has written about Congress, the national police, and the Liberal Party for Rappler.