West Philippine Sea

View from Manila: ‘Twas a weekend of ‘misunderstanding’ over Ayungin Shoal

Bea Cupin

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View from Manila: ‘Twas a weekend of ‘misunderstanding’ over Ayungin Shoal

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

Manila plays catch up in explaining and expounding on the June 17 mission

MANILA, Philippines – With a chuckle, Executive Secretary Lucas Bersamin, chairperson of the newly-formed National Maritime Council, sought to shoot down talk of invoking the Philippines-US Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) over the Chinese coast guard’s harassment of a June 17 military resupply mission to Ayungin Shoal in the West Philippine Sea (WPS).  

This was probably a misunderstanding, or an accident. We are not yet ready to clarify this as an armed attack. I dunno, kung yung mga nakita namin… mga bolo, axe (laughs)… nothing beyond that,” said Bersamin, head of the government’s multi-agency body tasked set the policy and strategy for the country’s maritime areas.  

It was the first time for the Office of the President to address the June 17 incident – and in a hastily called press conference at that, held on Friday afternoon, June 21. 

Experts with far more years tackling the WPS or maritime tensions in general have already pointed out: China’s aggressive move to prevent the Philippines’ resupply mission was in no way a result of mere misunderstanding between both parties.

Thus over the weekend, the security and defense sectors were quick to walk back on Bersamin’s quip.

On Monday, June 24, a day after President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. visited troops at the Western Command in Palawan, Defense Secretary Gilberto Teodoro told another surprise press conference (also in Malacañang) that after conversations with soldiers involved in the mission itself, “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. It is a deliberate act of the Chinese officialdom to prevent us from completing our mission.” 

He wasn’t the first public official to make a “clarification” in the aftermath of Bersamin’s conclusion.

Expert Speaks

[OPINION] Ayungin and why PH should respond as one team, one nation

[OPINION] Ayungin and why PH should respond as one team, one nation

In a press conference on Saturday, June 22, Philippine Coast Guard Commodore Jay Tarriela, speaking on behalf of the National Task Force for the West Philippine Sea, said that while the Chinese Coast Guard’s (CCG) actions were “illegal, inhumane, and barbaric,” it cannot be classified an armed attack and therefore not a reason to invoke the MDT

Maritime law expert Jay Batongbacal, in the same press conference, said labeling the incident as a “misunderstanding” could be used to “give space for deliberate effort to seek a diplomatic and peaceful solution.” 

By now, most Filipinos have seen the videos from the Philippine military – of the melee that ensued just at the foot of a still-commissioned BRP Sierra Madre. The Chinese brandished weapons – at least one drew out an axe and many others brought out knives. 

Seaman First Class Underwater Operator Jeffrey Facundo of the Navy’s Special Operations Group lost his right thumb in the incident. After separating, towing, then boarding one of the Philippines’ rigid hull inflatable boats, the CCG destroyed equipment on board. Not even the personal cell phones of soldiers were spared. Seven rifles were also stolen by – and remain in the possession of – the Chinese. 

The military, in finally releasing video of the incident, said it was a “brazen assault.” AFP chief General Romeo Brawner Jr. branded it piracy. Tarriela, in a post on X, said the CCG were “barbaric” and “inhumane.”

In previous administrations, it would have been usual to learn of incidents in the WPS days or even weeks later. Not so in the past year under the Marcos administration. The government’s “transparency initiative” – part of the bigger strategy in the West Philippine Sea – meant that reporters, diplomats, and the general public would learn of missions (whether successful or not) the same day it happened.

Yet, a week after the June 17 resupply mission, the complete picture of what happened from start to finish has yet to be made public.

Rappler Executive Editor Glenda M. Gloria asked in this week’s edition of her newsletter, Rappler’s Best: Who decided to hold a mission just two days after the CCG’s regulation kicked into place? What’s up with the delay – and the continued government opacity on the matter? 

Those are questions for journalists (like myself!) to figure out. But they’re also questions for the security, defense, and military sectors to ponder. 

When tensions are rising, it becomes more important to ask each other the difficult questions – not to finger-point or to play politics – but to figure out (as retired Rear Admiral Rommel Ong emphasized) collectively how to best handle things from strategy to tactics, from military actions to communications. 

Meanwhile, the President’s sister, Senator Imee Marcos, announced she is set to hold a probe on the June 17 incident before the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, which she chairs.

Not China’s business

There’s a story template that’s also going around on Instagram about how “a Chinese vessel and a Philippine supply ship collided near the Ayungin Shoal.” 

The graphic, easily shareable on stories with two taps at most, goes on to assert that the “collision” was a “direct effect” of a recently-concluded joint exercise between the US and the Philippines Marines, as well as a joint sail by the Philippines, US, Japan, and Canada in the West Philippine Sea. 

The graphics’ creators likely meant well. Unease, fear, or outrage over bilateral or multilateral military operations and exercises over the tense West Philippine Sea, is understandable. 

But the context of June 17 is not just the joint drills or the joint sail – it’s months and years of harassment by the Chinese in waters that are part of the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ). It’s China lying about building on Mischief Reef – which prompted the Philippines to moor the BRP Sierra Madre in Ayungin Shoal in the first place.

Can these drills and exercises or joint sails be provocative? Beijing can, and sometimes will, see them as such. But however the Philippines chooses to beef up its (lagging) military capabilities – so long as it follows domestic and international law – is not China’s business. 

Marcos, in his Palawan visit, tried to recast the soldiers of the Western Command not as api or victims, but professionals who “remained calm and mission-oriented” and heroes who make “a conscious and deliberate choice to remain in the path of peace”

Before a smaller crowd of Ayungin-deployed troops and their families, Marcos said: “One of the reasons why I wanted to come here is to be very clear, para maunawaan ninyo na hindi lang kayo…. Kinikilala kayo sa inyong tapang, sa inyong sakripisyo, but most of all, your professionalism. Dahil ‘yan ang talagang pinaka-importante dito. Dahil delikado ang sitwasyon at kung isa sa inyo nagkamali, o nagalit, o uminit ang ulo na may ginawa, ay magkakagulo nang husto. Kung nagkakagulo man, hindi kayo ang nagsisismula ng gulo na ‘yan. Kaya’t congratulations and well-done.” 

(You are commended not only for your courage and sacrifice but for your professionalism. That’s the most important thing here. Because it is dangerous if one of you makes a mistake, gets mad, or loses your patience, then chaos will break out. Now, if it does, you won’t be the instigators. So congratulations and well done.)

The professionalism he asks for is easier said than done.

The 2016 Arbitral Award – the Philippines’ historic win against China in asserting its EEZ – is the foundation of Manila’s fight in the West Philippine Sea. But out in the sea and faced with a swarm of Chinese ships, the situation for any Philippine sailor is not so simple.

Stakeholders have always said that it’s every government’s mandate to make sure the military, coast guard, or even agencies like the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources have the right assets and capabilities.

Keeping lines open with China – despite lines being “choppy” – is important as well, they added. And that’s where another kind of frontliner – the Filipino diplomat or even the Filipino politician – will need to step up, too. – 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.