AFP readies another resupply mission to Ayungin

Michael Punongbayan, Evelyn Macairan - The Philippine Star
AFP readies another resupply mission to Ayungin
An aerial view taken on March 9, 2023 shows Philippine ship BRP Sierra Madre grounded on Ayunging Shoal (Second Thomas Shoal) in the South China Sea.
AFP / Jam Sta. Rosa

MANILA, Philippines — Days after being forced to abandon a resupply mission for troops in the Ayungin Shoal by a Chinese water cannon attack, the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) is preparing to make another trip – this time, possibly with bigger escort vessels.

The AFP said that as a result of the water cannon incident, it managed to deliver only half of the needed provisions for the Marine outpost on the grounded BRP Sierra Madre.

“We need to re-supply them within the next two weeks but we will see how we are going to do it because of what’s happening in the West Philippine Sea,” AFP spokesman Col. Medel Aguilar said in an interview over radio dzBB.

“Our objective is always to make sure that our troops there have the food, drinks and other supplies they need to do their task there,” Aguilar said.

He said the Aug. 5 incident was a valid cause for indignation among Filipinos who should unite and deal with the situation calmly but with determination.

He also justified the bringing of construction materials to the BRP Sierra Madre, saying the vessel is still an active sea asset of the Philippine Navy.

“And therefore, it is our responsibility to man it and to maintain it so therefore we have to make sure that BRP Sierra remains to be livable and provides safe living environment for our troops,” he said.

Without revealing sensitive details, Aguilar said military personnel man the old warship on a round-the-clock basis.

He explained that smaller ships do the resupply mission because larger vessels cannot go near the Sierra Madre due to shallow depth.

Bigger escort ships

But at least bigger ships should be deployed as escorts to resupply vessels, Philippine Coast Guard-West Philippine Sea (PCG-WPS) spokesman Commodore Jay Tarriela said.

In an interview over ABS-CBN, Tarriela said the PCG might include as escort vessels the 97-meter BRP Teresa Magbanua and BRP Melchora Aquino or the 83-meter BRP Gabriela Silang.

“For the PCG, we will intensify our patrol in the Ayungin Shoal. If there would be another resupply, we might add additional PCG vessels to support the resupply mission. We can also consider deploying the 93-meter vessels or the 83-meter vessel, to have a much bigger boat to support the resupply operation,” Tarriela said.

In an interview over CNN Philippines, the PCG official said however that any decision to deploy bigger or additional ships would have to be cleared by the National Task Force West Philippine Sea.

During the Aug. 5 incident, the PCG sent only the 44-meter multi-role response vessels (MRRVs) BRP Malabrigo and BRP Cabra to escort the resupply mission to Ayungin. The CCG vessels that confronted them were almost three times bigger.

National Security Council assistant director and National Task Force on the West Philippine Sea (NTF-WPS) spokesman Jonathan Malaya said China, or at least the Chinese Coast Guard (CCG), is imagining things in claiming that the Philippines had promised to remove the BRP Sierra Madre from Ayungin Shoal.

He told reporters there is no record of such a pledge.

In a statement, the CCG insisted that the Philippines had promised to remove the warship, which the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) deliberately grounded in 1999 to serve as military outpost. The CCG claimed the Philippines made the promise 24 years ago.

“There is no record or any minutes of a meeting or any formal report or any legal document, legally enforceable document or otherwise a verbal agreement that we know of in National Security Council,” Malaya told reporters yesterday.

“We ran it aground long time ago, way back if I’m not mistaken during the time of president Estrada, and many administrations ago,” he said.

“So, when exactly did we make such commitment, and who claimed there really was one? It will be very difficult for us to respond to a seemingly hypothetical question on the part of China because insofar as we’re concerned, we have not and will never sign or agree to anything that would in effect abandon our sovereign rights and jurisdiction over the West Philippine Sea, in particular Ayungin Shoal,” Malaya explained.

Malaya said Ayungin Shoal is within the exclusive economic zone (EEZ) of the Philippines and is part of the country’s continental shelf, a fact affirmed in 2016 by an international arbitral court based in The Hague.

“If there is really such an agreement, then it goes against the legal position of government. So, again, we can consider this I think a fiction or imagination of the Chinese Ambassador,” he said, referring to Huang Xilian.

Malaya reiterated that the Philippine government would never abandon the BRP Sierra Madre even if it would mean playing “patintero” with the Chinese. He called the grounded vessel “a symbol of Philippine sovereignty over that area.”

He said there were at least a dozen Chinese vessels in the vicinity during the Aug. 5 water cannon incident. Six of the vessels were from the CCG, four from the Chinese navy and two were militia boats.

In an interview with reporters at Camp Crame, Senate President Juan Miguel Zubiri said the government should file a complaint against China before the United Nations for its acts of provocation in the West Philippine Sea, instead of just sending diplomatic protests or note verbale.

“Those acts done were completely illegal and therefore if you ask me, a complaint should be filed under the UNCLOS with the UN,” Zubiri said, referring to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.

He also branded China as shameless for questioning the repairs being done on the Sierra Madre.

“They’re saying we’re building infrastructure in Ayungin Shoal. They’re shameless, they have to remove their infrastructure there first,” he said.

Zubiri was referring to reclaimed lands within the Philippines’ EEZ where the Chinese have built military bases.

The Senate president also defended President Marcos from criticism over his statement regarding a “gray area” in the West Philippine Sea.

Out of context

For Zubiri, Marcos’ statement was taken out of context as he was only referring to the claims of China and Philippines in the West Philippine Sea.

“The gray area that he is talking about is China saying that is theirs and the Philippines saying it is ours,” he said.

Zubiri stressed that Marcos has been firm in his assertion that the government will not give up an inch of the country’s territory.

“The President in his heart and in his mind, that area is Philippine area, that is within Philippine territory,” he said.

Meanwhile, Speaker Martin Romualdez voiced support for bigger spending for the defense sector, citing the need to improve the military’s capability to protect and preserve the country’s territory.

“Our commitment to safeguarding our territorial integrity and ensuring the safety of our citizens remains unwavering,” Romualdez said in a statement from Jakarta in Indonesia where he was attending the 44th ASEAN Inter-Parliamentary Assembly.

“We must take proactive measures to enhance our defense capabilities and ensure that we have the necessary resources to effectively protect our sovereign rights,” Romualdez said.

Of the proposed P5.768-trillion budget for next year, the allocation for the defense sector is P282.7 billion, or 21.6 percent more than the P203.4-billion allocation under the 2023 budget.

The Speaker said the allocation “demonstrates our dedication to maintaining a strong and credible defense posture, one that sends a clear message that we will not compromise when it comes to safeguarding our national interest.”

“We must remember that a strong defense is not merely a tool for confrontation, but a means to uphold peace, stability and the rule of law,” he added.

Romualdez said it is the government’s duty to ensure that the nation is “adequately equipped to face any challenges that may come our way.”

“By prioritizing our defense sector in the budget, we are making a commitment to our people, to our allies and to the international community that reflects our unwavering resolve to protect our sovereignty and promote regional stability,” he added. — Sheila Crisostomo, Emmanuel Tupas

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