Funding pushed for permanent structure in Ayungin

Michael Punongbayan - The Philippine Star
Funding pushed for permanent structure in Ayungin
Philippine Navy's BRP Sierra Madre has been grounded on Second Thomas or Ayungin Shoal in the West Philippine Sea since 1999.
CSIS / AMTI via DigitalGlobe

MANILA, Philippines — Legislators are pushing to finance a project that will construct a permanent structure in Ayungin Shoal in the West Philippine Sea (WPS) where soldiers are stationed on the grounded BRP Sierra Madre.

The Philippines is also working on drawing its own map to counter China’s latest 10-dash line maritime claims in the South China Sea (SCS) and the WPS.

National Security Council (NSC) assistant director general Jonathan Malaya said funding amounting to P100 million for the planned construction is being proposed in Congress.

Malaya, spokesman for the National Task Force on WPS, said Sen. Francis Escudero and Rep. Rufus Rodriguez have proposed the insertion of funds in the 2024 General Appropriations Act.

The money, he said, will be used for the construction and maintenance of a permanent structure in Ayungin Shoal where food and supplies are periodically sent to soldiers on the Sierra Madre.

China Coast Guard (CCG) vessels and maritime militia boats have been blocking and harassing the resupply missions and even fired a water cannon at a resupply vessel last month.

Malaya said the funds will provide money not only for Sierra Madre but also for Pagasa Island and seven other features in the WPS “effectively occupied by the Philippines.”

On countering China’s latest maritime claims in the SCS, Malaya said the Philippine map now being prepared will conform with the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and the 2016 Arbitral Award.

Malaya said the new map released by China, where the previous nine-dash line has been expanded to 10-dash, does not only infringe on Philippine sovereignty but also that of other claimant states in the South China Sea like India, Nepal and even Russia.

The 2016 Arbitral Award favoring the Philippines invalidated China’s vast maritime claims in the SCS and WPS but China rejected and continues to ignore the ruling.

Malaya likewise vowed that the Philippines will not back down and will continue to assert its sovereign rights despite China’s increasingly aggressive actions in the West Philippine Sea.

With both sides apparently strengthening their positions, the government declares that it will continue to file diplomatic protests to question Chinese activities and presence within the country’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ).

“Some people are questioning why do we keep on issuing this diplomatic protest when there has been no change in the behavior of China. It is not for purpose of changing the behavior of China, it is for purposes of putting on record our position,” he said.

For the past eight months, the Philippines has filed nearly four dozen diplomatic protests against China’s activities in the WPS, according to the Department of Foreign Affairs.

“For 2023 and as of 12 September, 43 protests against Chinese incursions have been filed,” DFA spokesperson Maria Teresita Daza said.

Malaya acknowledged that China may also be trying to change its strategy by using smaller vessels so as not to be perceived as a bully, but the entire world has seen what is happening in the WPS.

He said the NTF-WPS is also considering options such as increasing the number of military and civilian ships patrolling the WPS.

The NSC has likewise assured the public that the deployment and use of a Poseidon surveillance aircraft by the United States in the WPS is legal and allowed under the Mutual Defense Treaty.

“There is nothing illegal about the presence of an American surveillance aircraft in our exclusive zone. EEZs of various countries under the UNCLOS are subject to freedom of navigation and freedom of overflight,” Malaya explained.

He noted that resupply missions to the BRP Sierra Madre are entirely Filipino operations with the Philippine Navy and the Philippine Coast Guard ships “and there was no American presence there whatsoever.”

Philippines fishers blocked from Panatag

A fishers’ group in Masinloc, Zambales on Wednesday said the presence of Chinese Coast Guard and Chinese militia prevented fishermen from fishing at Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal.

In a radio interview, New Masinloc Fishermen Association president Leonardo Cuaresma said the last time fisherfolk attempted to sail to Panatag Shoal was in May 2023 but they were not successful.

“We were hoping to have our luck and earn but we did not succeed as the bullying of Chinese Coast Guard and Chinese militia persisted,” Cuaresma said.?

He said that a Chinese mother ship is blocking the way toward the shoal.

“Only small boats could enter but they are like thieves who enter the area during high tide,” he said.?

He added that they informed the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) stationed in Masinloc that fishermen will fish at Panatag but no escort was provided to them.

He said the CCG and Chinese militia started flexing muscle in 2012 after a standoff between them and the PCG.

According to Cuaresma, Panatag Shoal was rich in fisheries resources, describing it as “talagang parang isinaboy na palay” back in the day.

He also contradicted the claim of former president Rodrigo Duterte that Filipinos are free to fish in the West Philippine Sea.

“That’s not true as the Chinese Coast Guard and Chinese militia remain in the area. We are not free to catch fish,” he noted. “No other nationality benefits in the area except Chinese. (Filipino) fishermen can only sail up 20 nautical miles, 30 nautical miles and the others reach 124 nautical miles at Bajo de Masinloc but these have fish aggregating devices.” ?

He said fishers are also affected by the spike in the prices of petroleum products.

On the other hand, Cuaresma said that the 40 members of New Masinloc Fishermen Association support the plan of the Armed Forces of the Philippines to tap them as militia forces in the West Philippine Sea to augment the Philippines’ patrol capabilities amid increased Chinese aggression.?

Armed Forces chief Gen. Romeo Brawner Jr. has said that the Philippine military is considering the deployment of militia forces in the WPS to augment patrol capabilities, drawing from the AFP’s reserve force and possibly among fisherfolk.

EDCA sites inspected

Meanwhile, in Tuguegarao City, diplomatic and military officials of the Philippines and US inspected the three Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) sites in Luzon on Wednesday.

Sources told reporters that the joint team, with Brawner along with US Ambassador Marykay Carlson and US Indo-Pacific Command Admiral John Aquilino, inspected EDCA sites at the Lal-lo airpot and the Naval Base Camilo Osias in Santa Ana, Cagayan.

After the inspection, the team proceeded to Basa Air Base in Pampanga to check on another EDCA site.

The source said the three EDCA sites are among the nine facilities that can be used for the prepositioning of military assets and equipment to respond to emergencies. – Bella Cariaso, Jun Elias

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