West Philippine Sea

‘Not a misunderstanding’: PH changes tune on China’s Ayungin harassment

Bea Cupin

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‘Not a misunderstanding’: PH changes tune on China’s Ayungin harassment

CHINESE HARASSMENT. The China Coast Guard brandishes weapons, uses sirens, and threatens Filipino soldiers already moored alongside the BRP Sierra Madre during a June 17, 2024 resupply mission in Ayungin Shoal.

Armed Forces of the Philippines

(1st UPDATE) A visit to Palawan by President Marcos results into two developments: the calling of China’s actions during the resupply mission as ‘deliberate’, and the scrapping of a proposal to announce to the public schedules of these missions

MANILA, Philippines – Days after the newly-established National Maritime Council (NCM) called the Chinese harassment of a June 17 resupply mission to Ayungin Shoal a “misunderstanding” and recommended to “announce” future resupply missions, the Philippines has changed its tune, now describing Chinese actions in the West Philippine Sea as “deliberate.”

‘Not a misunderstanding’: PH changes tune on China’s Ayungin harassment

“After our visit to our troops in Palawan yesterday, where the President personally talked to the troops involved in the RORE, we have now come to the conclusion that it was not a misunderstanding or an accident. We are not downplaying the incident. It was an aggressive and illegal use of force,” said Defense Secretary Gibo Teodoro on Monday, June 24, during a press conference in Malacañang.

“It is a deliberate act of the Chinese officialdom to prevent us from completing our mission,” he added.

On June 17, China Coast Guard (CCG) personnel harassed Philippine soldiers on a rotation and resupply mission to the BRP Sierra Madre, a rusting warship that serves as a military outpost in Ayungin Shoal. The CCG towed one of the Philippine ships, destroyed equipment on board, and seized disassembled arms. One Filipino soldier lost his right thumb as China kept ramming the Philippines’ rigid hull inflatable boats (RHIBs).

After days of uncertainty over the events of that altercation, the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) on June 19 released videos showing how CCG members brandished bladed weapons, used tear gas, and blared sirens in harassing Filipino soldiers who were moored beside the BRP Sierra Madre. The AFP called the incident a brutal attack, while the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) spokesperson for the West Philippine Sea Commodore Jay Tarriela said the CCG actions were “barbaric” and “inhumane.”

It was Executive Secretary Lucas Bersamin, chairperson of the NMC, who told a press conference on Friday, June 21, that the incident was “probably a misunderstanding, or an accident.” During the same press conference, Bersamin and Presidential Adviser for Maritime Affairs Andres Centino announced a proposal to make public the schedule of the regular resupply missions to the shoal.

This proposal has also apparently been axed by President Ferdinand Marcos Jr.

Asked in a chance interview what changed between the Friday announcement and the Monday press conference, Teodoro told reporters that Bersamin’s assertion was based on the “preliminary assessment at that time.” “But after the trip of the President to Palawan, nag firm up yung conclusion that it was deliberate,” he said.

Military-led resupply missions to Ayungin Shoal are typically tight-kept secrets, and the details of each operation are restricted or on a need-to-know basis.

Marcos visited soldiers stationed at the Western Command, the military unified command that has jurisdiction over most of the West Philippine Sea. During his Puerto Princesa visit, the President spoke to soldiers who had been stationed to the BRP Sierra Madre. He also awarded the soldier who lost his thumb during the melee at Ayungin Shoal.

The Philippines has, at least, been consistent on one thing: that the incident, despite the “brutal” and “barbaric” actions of the CCG, is not an armed attack and not a reason to invoke the Mutual Defense Treaty with the United States.

Marcos himself emphasized the importance of diplomacy.

“We are not in the business to instigate wars—our great ambition is to provide a peaceful and prosperous life for every Filipino. This is the drum beat, this is the principle that we live by and that we march by. We refuse to play by the rules that force us to choose sides in a great power competition. No government that truly exists in the service of the people will invite danger or harm to lives and livelihood. And that is why, in defending the nation, we stay true to our Filipino nature that we would like to settle all these issues peacefully,” he said during a speech in Palawan.

Meanwhile, in a Reuters report, the Chinese foreign ministry said on Monday that the Philippines “should stop its infringement and provocation” and “work with China to safeguard peace and stability in the South China Sea”.

It also urged Manila to stop “violations” and “misleading the international community.”

Tension between the Philippines and China in the West Philippine Sea, a part of the South China Sea that includes the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ), have risen considerably over the past year. China claims almost all of the South China Sea as its own, including parts that are well within the Philippines’ EEZ, including Ayungin Shoal.

Marcos has promised not to yield, even as Beijing has warned against the “consequences” of Manila’s actions in the West Philippine Sea.

Beijing refuses to recognize a 2016 Arbitral Ruling, which deemed its claim illegal and affirmed Manila’s EEZ.

The two countries are overdue for another meeting through the Bilateral Consultation Mechanism to tackle South China Sea matters, with the last one taking place in Shanghai back in January 2024. – with reports from Reuters/Rappler.com

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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.