Philippines-China relations

Philippines doubles down on Ayungin after China claims ‘illegal’ activities

Bea Cupin

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Philippines doubles down on Ayungin after China claims ‘illegal’ activities

SOUTH CHINA SEA. This file photo shows a Philippine flag at the Second Thomas Shoal on March 29, 2014.

Erik De Castro/Reuters

(2nd UPDATE) The Department of Foreign Affairs says resupply missions and repairs of the grounded wartime ship in Ayungin Shoal ‘are part of regular operations in line with domestic and international law’

MANILA, Philippines – There’s no debate over the Philippine missions to Ayungin Shoal, Manila reminded Beijing on Tuesday, August 8, after the Asian superpower claimed “illegal” actions in the South China Sea.

“The Philippines’ resupply missions and repair of BRP Sierra Madre are part of regular operations in line with domestic and international law, and ensures safety and wellbeing of our stationed personnel,” said Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) spokesperson Teresita Daza in a statement.

China’s foreign ministry spokesperson claimed – albeit erroneously – in a statement late Monday, August 7, that the BRP Sierra Madre, a World War 2-era grounded battle ship that serves as the Philippine outpost in the area, had been “illegally landed” in Ayungin Shoal. Beijing refers to the area as Ren’ai Jiao.

“China immediately made serious démarches to the Philippines, demanding the removal of the vessel. The Philippines promised several times to tow it away, but has yet to act,” China claimed.

The two foreign ministries exchanged statements days after Chinese Coast Guard and militia vessels blocked, harassed, and fired water cannons against Philippine vessels en route to Ayungin Shoal to bring supplies for soldiers stationed in the BRP Sierra Madre on August 5.

China characterized its tailing and use of water cannons on Philippine ships as “professional, restrained and beyond reproach.”

The Philippines though considers these otherwise. Manila said that in blocking Philippine ships from reaching Ayungin Shoal, China “impeded the Philippines’ legitimate and regular activities in its own exclusive economic zone and were in violation” of international law.

Manila cites four international doctrines in asserting the legality of its activities in Ayungin: the 1982 UNCLOS (United Nations Convention for the Law of the Sea), the Award on the 2016 South China Sea Arbitration, the 1972 COLREGS (International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea), and the 2002 ASEAN-China DOC (Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea).

Historic 2016 win

The 2016 arbitral ruling was a historic win for the Philippines, but China has refused to recognize the decision of the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA).

That decision quashed the Asian superpower’s overarching claim almost of the South China Sea. Other countries in the region are contesting China’s claim in the vast waterway.

In the end, only one of the vessels chartered by the Philippine military made it to BRP Sierra Madre. The Philippine government is still figuring out how the rest of the intended supplies shipment will reach Marines stationed in the West Philippine Sea.

The BRP Sierra Madre is a Philippine Navy ship that was purposefully grounded in 1999 to serve as the military’s outpost in Ayungin Shoal “in response to China’s illegal occupation of Panganiban Reef in 1995,” said Daza.

Ayungin Shoal is 105 nautical miles west of Palawan.

“The deployment of a Philippine military station in its own areas of jurisdiction is an inherent right of the Philippines and does not violate any laws. Moreover, the Philippine station on Ayungin Shoal was deployed in 1999, years ahead of the conclusion in 2002 of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC), and is therefore not a violation of the DOC,” she added.

The day prior, China called on the Philippines to remove the BRP Sierra Madre. In response, National Security Council Assistant Director General Jonathan Malaya told reporters in Manila: “We will not abandon Ayungin Shoal. We are committed to the Ayungin Shoal.”

China vs the US, too

As China accused the Philippines of “illegal” acts in the West Philippine Sea, the Asian superpower also lambasted the United States for supposedly attacking their “legitimate and lawful actions at sea aimed at safeguarding its rights and enforcing the law.”

China accused the US of “inciting and supporting the Philippines attempts to repair and reinforce” the BRP Sierra Madre. The Philippines has, as the DFA confirmed, been repairing the ship.

Beijing also berated the US for supporting the Philippines’ 2016 win, belittling it as a “pure political drama staged in the name of the law with the US pulling strings behind the scenes.” The ruling was made by the PCA at The Hague and is supported not just by the US, but by several countries as well.

“South China Sea is not a ‘safari park’ for countries outside the region to make mischief and sow discord,” said China’s embassy in Manila in a statement on Tuesday.


Security experts say China’s actions around the atoll point to one thing – Beijing wants to take control of Second Thomas Shoal, also known in China as Renai Reef, and Ayungin in Manila.

“We must reestablish sea control around the shoal because if we don’t control it, our resupply is vulnerable to their coercive tactics,” said Rommel Ong, a maritime security expert and retired vice commander of the Philippine Navy.

It was not the first time the Chinese coast guard has directed a water cannon at a Manila boat, having done the same in November 2021.

No one was hurt during the August 5 incident, but Philippine officials said on Monday one of Manila’s two boats did not complete its resupply mission. Both were back in a Philippine port.

China claims sovereignty over almost the entire South China Sea, which overlaps with the exclusive economic zones of Malaysia, Vietnam, Brunei, Taiwan and the Philippines.

Both Ong and Collin Koh, a security fellow at Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, believe China would think twice about using outright force to occupy the shoal lest it triggers a 1951 US-Philippines mutual defense treaty.

“There’s probably no question about whether China has the means to up the ante here, but more about its willingness over those political risks,” said Koh.

Jonathan Malaya, assistant director general of the Philippines National Security Council, urged China “not to escalate matters” and put lives at risk.

Japan and France, through their embassies in Manila, have expressed concern over China’s recent actions and repeated their support for a 2016 arbitral ruling that invalidated Beijing’s expansive South China Sea claims.

China claims sovereignty over almost the entire South China Sea, which overlaps with the exclusive economic zones of Malaysia, Vietnam, Brunei, Taiwan and the Philippines.

Cagayan de Oro City, 2nd District Representative Rufus Rodriguez has called on Marcos to take “more drastic actions” against China’s “harassment and bullying tactic,” including downgrading Manila’s embassy in Beijing. – with reports from Reuters/ 

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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.