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The resupply missions to Ayungin Shoal are starting to look like a series streaming on Netflix. In early August, we saw dramatic footage – taken from a drone or an airplane – of a China Coast Guard vessel firing water cannon on a Navy-operated boat a fraction of its size that was carrying food, water and repair materials for the decrepit BRP Sierra Madre. Only one of these two small boats was able to deliver the supplies.
It was a classic David and Goliath scene, the show of might and power writ large in that moment.
Another mission took place on August 22 and this time, there was little drama. Despite attempts of the Chinese Coast Guard and maritime militia to “block and harass” the Philippine Coast Guard escort ships as well as the Navy supply boats, the mission was a success.
Commodore Jay Tarriela, Philippine Coast Guard spokesperson on the West Philippine Sea, explained it to ABS-CBN this way: “Tatlong layer yung ginawa nila. Para kang basically nakikipag-patintero after you cross one vessel and then the next vessel.” (They [Chinese ships] set up three layers. It’s like playing “block the runner,” [a traditional Filipino children’s game]. You cross one vessel, then there’s another ship that you have to get through.)
He continued: “It is dangerous in a way that there is a possibility that you might ram their vessel. There are also chances that they could ram you if there was a miscalculation…”
But China took credit and said they stepped back because of “humanitarian considerations.”
Why China desires Ayungin
Rotation and resupply missions, called RORE, take place regularly, about once a month.
In the next episodes, we can expect China’s Coast Guard and maritime militia to shadow, block, and maneuver dangerously close to the Philippine vessels. If their intelligence tells them that the Philippines will be ferrying construction materials, then China will step up its harassment and fire water cannon on our Coast Guard vessels and Navy boats.
Any one of these intimidation tactics is bound to happen because the Chinese deeply covet Ayungin Shoal (Second Thomas Shoal), which is close to Mischief Reef, only about 20 nautical miles (37 kilometers) away.
China grabbed Mischief Reef from the Philippines in 1995 and has since converted it into a military base. Adding Ayungin Shoal to its maritime grabs is part of its expansionist nine-dash-line claim, recently swallowing up even more areas in a newly released 10-dash line map.
Never mind that an international arbitration court has declared China’s claim illegal and that Ayungin Shoal lies within the Philippines’ Exclusive Economic Zone – which means our country has sovereign rights over the area.
These mean nothing to the Chinese vessels which will never leave our waters and will continue to closely monitor our resupply missions.
For China, Ayungin seems to be an easy target. The strategy is to wear down the Philippines, constantly harass the resupply missions so that no construction materials will be brought to BRP Sierra Madre. This would make the World War 2-vintage ship that guards the shoal eventually uninhabitable. When and if – an unlikely scenario – the Philippines pulls out its troops from Ayungin, that would be China’s opportunity to seize the shoal.
Refurbish BRP Sierra Madre
The one good thing that emerged from the hosing down of a Navy resupply boat in early August was a new resolve of the government to openly talk about repairing the moribund Sierra Madre. The government has avoided admitting to repairing the miserable-looking ship because this triggers a vehement response from China.
It appeared to be the first time the government issued a written statement that explicitly said that a Philippine resupply mission included materials to fix the aging ship. The Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) wrote in its August 7, 2023 statement: “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.” (Italicized phrase is mine.)
Vice Admiral Alberto Carlos, chief of the Western Command based in Palawan, took the cue from the DFA and told the media they were considering “refurbishing” the ship. He did not elaborate.
The last time a Navy resupply mission was sprayed with water cannon was during Duterte’s presidency (2021) because China said the boat carried construction materials. Unlike the August incident, where one Navy boat was able to deliver supplies, the mission was aborted, with both resupply boats turning back to Palawan.
Delfin Lorenzana, then defense secretary, was forthright. He said that China cannot stop the Philippines from fixing parts of BRP Sierra Madre. “They [China] don’t want us to repair Sierra Madre such that it will stay there permanently… Our personnel need to repair the living quarters…We will maintain the ship because it hasn’t been decommissioned yet. It is still part of the Philippine Navy.”
This was a rare admission that the Philippines was conducting repair of the ship, but it was verbal.
What can the Philippines do to protect Ayungin?
It will take a host of moves.
- On the legal and diplomatic front, the DFA should continue to file protests to put on record that the Philippines is asserting its rights over Ayungin Shoal. This can be done quietly or, when necessary, made public.
- On the waters, the sustained presence of the Coast Guard and the Navy – through their patrols – is vital. The upgrade, modernization and increase of Navy and Coast Guard ships are continuing endeavors, same with the continuous training through joint exercises with friendly countries. For better eyes on the West Philippine Sea, radars for surveillance and reconnaissance are needed.
- Joint patrols with like-minded countries like the US, Japan, Australia will send a message to China that the Philippines is not alone in upholding its sovereign rights over the West Philippine Sea.Real time intelligence-sharing, as provided in the recently released Philippines-US defense bilateral guidelines, will boost Philippine response to Chinese intimidation.
Let’s see what happens in the next resupply missions.
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