MANILA, Philippines - Despite harassments from China, the Philippines is determined to keep its small military detachment on Ayungin Shoal stationed on a grounded World War II era landing ship, Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin said yesterday.
Gazmin declined to discuss details of the government’s action plan for keeping the military’s precarious hold on the garrison but said it’s the mandate of the armed forces to protect and preserve the country’s territorial integrity.
“When it comes to issues involving Ayungin Shoal, you talk with the Department of Foreign Affairs because if I take up this issue, people will get mad at me,” the defense chief said on the sidelines of the Philippine Army founding anniversary celebration held at Fort Bonifaco, Taguig City. When pressed to elaborate, he said, “It is within our mandate to protect and secure what is ours.”
A senior security official said the Navy is conducting repairs in the rundown BRP Sierra Madre to keep it intact and safe for a handful of Marines assigned to guard the shoal, which is well within the country’s exclusive economic zone.
“There’s no plan to put up any structures in Ayungin. What we are doing there is conducting repairs inside the ship to keep it from disintegrating,” the security official, who asked not be named, said.
He said steel joints and beams inside BRP Sierra Madre are deteriorating and if not immediately repaired, the vessel may just collapse.
“We’re not leaving the place because it’s ours,” the official said.
He said the detachment in Ayungin as well as those in other garrisons being coveted by China would be given provisions regularly.
China is demanding the removal of BRP Sierra Madre from Ayungin and even threatening to hold the Philippines responsible – in case hostilities flare up – for its “illegal occupation.”
Ayungin Shoal is situated along the supply route from mainland Palawan to Kalayaan town, an island municipality located in Pag-Asa Island in the hotly-contested Spratlys.
Ayungin is also several nautical miles away from the oil-rich Recto Bank, also known as Reed Bank. – With Aurea Calica, Pia Lee-Brago