Philippines-US relations

US envoy flexes Wescom ‘coordination’ as WPS tensions rise

Bea Cupin

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US envoy flexes Wescom ‘coordination’ as WPS tensions rise

'COORDINATION MEETING.' US Ambassador MaryKay Carlson meets with Western Command chief Vice Admiral Alfonso Torres Jr. in Palawan.

US Ambassador MaryKay Carlson

'As allies, the United States and the Philippines coordinate on a wide array of issues of shared concern,' says a spokesperson for the US embassy in Manila

Coordination over what? Both Philippine and American officials were tight-lipped on Thursday, July 11, about an apparent “coordination meeting” between United States Ambassador to Manila MaryKay Carlson and Vice Admiral Alfonso Torres Jr., commander of the Western Command (Wescom).

Carlson had apparently visited the Wescom in Puerto Princesa, Palawan.

Wescom is the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) Unified Command that is tasked to guard the western front of the country, including the West Philippine Sea.

It’s Wescom that’s had to deal with China’s incursions in flashpoints like Ayungin Shoal or Second Thomas Shoal, Escoda or Sabin Shoal, and Pagasa or Thitu Island, among other features that are close to Palawan.

Other features in the West Philippine Sea, such as Scarborough or Panatag Shoal, are under the Northern Luzon Command.

“The United States and the Philippines are energized and aligned in our efforts to uphold international law and support a #FreeAndOpenIndoPacific,” said Carlson in a post on X (formerly Twitter).

In a message to the media, US embassy spokesperson Kanishka Gangopadhyay declined to disclose details of “diplomatic discussions” but said: “As Allies, the United States and the Philippines coordinate on a wide array of issues of shared concern.”

Most prominent of the Wescom’s tasks, perhaps, are regular rotation and resupply missions (RORE) to Ayungin Shoal, where a handful of Philippine Navy personnel are stationed at the BRP Sierra Madre for months at a time. Missions to Ayungin are often precarious, with the China Coast Guard (CCG) routinely harassing Philippine vessels that try to bring supplies and a fresh batch of soldiers to the beached warship.

The last resupply mission on June 17 was the worst and most violent confrontation between Chinese and Filipino personnel yet – the CCG harassed soldiers already moored close to the BRP Sierra Madre and eventually towed away the rigid hull inflatable boats (RHIBs) of the Naval Special Operations Command. The CCG proceeded to damage the RHIBs and equipment on board. A soldier lost his thumb because of China’s high-speed ramming.

‘COORDINATION MEETING.’ US Ambassador MaryKay Carlson meets with Western Command chief Vice Admiral Alfonso Torres Jr.

The AFP is demanding at least P60 million as payment for the equipment they ruined. China also seized seven rifles from the Philippines, which they have yet to return.

Previous missions to Ayungin Shoal were marred by other forms of harassment – the use of water cannons against Philippine ships, for instance.

The United States and the Philippines are treaty allies, bound by agreements that include the Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT), a decades-old agreement that, if invoked, means one country should come to the defense of the other in the event of an attack. Washington has since affirmed that the MDT “extends to armed attacks on Philippine armed forces, public vessels, or aircraft – including those of its Coast Guard – anywhere in the South China Sea.”

A resupply mission to the BRP Sierra Madre is due sooner rather than later – the June 17 resupply mission was, after all, disrupted by China’s harassment. Resupply missions in the months before that were either disrupted or only brought less supplies than usual – the May 19 resupply, for instance, was done via airdrop and even that was subject to China’s harassment and interception.

Could this meeting be related to a forthcoming RORE? Officials won’t say – nor would we expect them to confirm nor deny these things, on or even off the record. Wescom has yet to respond to inquiries from Rappler.

Philippine officials, even after the June 17 incident, have said that it will not be invoking the MDT – specifically, Article IV, which states that if one party is under attack, the other “would act to meet the common dangers in accordance with its constitutional processes.”

There have been calls, however, including from South China Sea observer and maritime security expert Ray Powell, to invoke Article III, which covers “consultations” between the US and the Philippines “whenever in the opinion of either of them the territorial integrity political independence or security of either of the Parties is threatened by external armed attack in the Pacific.”

Officials have also tried to bring tensions down at sea and on land through diplomacy. Manila on July 2 hosted the Bilateral Consultation Mechanism on the South China Sea between the Philippines and China. –

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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.