‘China used illegal force to stop Ayungin mission’

Alexis Romero - The Philippine Star
�China used illegal force to stop Ayungin mission�
Defense Secretary Gilbert Teodoro and National Security Adviser Eduardo Año answer questions from the media about the Ayungin resupply incident during a press briefing yesterday.
STAR / File

Latest incident neither misunderstanding nor accident – DND chief

MANILA, Philippines — It was neither a “misunderstanding” nor an “accident,” with Filipinos forced to use their bare hands to fend off Chinese coast guard personnel who boarded their boats and resorted to “illegal use of force” to stop them from completing a resupply mission to the BRP Sierra Madre in Ayungin Shoal, officials said yesterday.

In a joint statement, Defense Secretary Gilbert Teodoro Jr., National Security Adviser Eduardo Año and acting Foreign Affairs Secretary Ma. Theresa Lazaro also stressed that the Philippine government would never seek permission or consent from anyone in performing its sworn duties, including the sending of supplies to Filipino troops stationed on the Sierra Madre.

“We see the latest incident in Ayungin not as a misunderstanding or an accident. It is a deliberate act of the Chinese officialdom to prevent us from completing our mission,” according to the joint statement, read by Teodoro in a press briefing at Malacañang.

“After our visit to our troops in Palawan yesterday, where the President personally talked to the troops involved in the RORE (rotation and resupply), we have now come to a conclusion that it was not a misunderstanding or an accident,” the statement read.

Teodoro also said there will be no prior announcement of RORE missions, contrary to a recommendation of the National Maritime Council to President Marcos.

“The President has reiterated that we will not publish schedules of any RORE,” Teodoro added.

“We will continue our rotation and resupply missions on a regular basis, the welfare of our troops in the BRP Sierra Madre being a matter of utmost importance,” Teodoro said.

The officials issued the statement three days after Executive Secretary Lucas Bersamin told a Palace press briefing that the Ayungin incident last June 17 was “probably a misunderstanding or accident,” not an armed attack.

“We would also like to categorically say that our policy on the West Philippine Sea has not changed,” Teodoro said. “We are not downplaying the incident. It was an aggressive and illegal use of force.”

He clarified that Bersamin’s remark about the Ayungin incident was “a preliminary assessment at that time.”

“But after the trip of the President to Palawan, the conclusion that the incident was really deliberate firmed up,” the defense chief said, referring to President Marcos’ visit to the Armed Forces Western Command last Sunday.

While the joint statement was a departure from Bersamin’s remarks, the Marcos administration still does not regard China’s actions as enough to trigger the Mutual Defense Treaty between the Philippines and the US.

The 1951 agreement allows the two treaty allies to jointly develop their capabilities to respond to external armed aggression. During a bilateral meeting with Marcos in Washington last year, US President Joe Biden maintained that an armed attack on Philippine armed forces, public vessels or aircraft in the Pacific, including in the South China Sea, would invoke his country’s mutual defense commitments.

“We cannot classify it as an armed attack because by international definition of an armed attack, it is the use of military force, an excessive use of force that could trigger collective self defense,” Año said in a chance interview yesterday.

However, Año said China violated a lot of international and domestic laws during the June 17 incident, including the Convention on the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea, the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea and the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, which requires member-states to exercise self-restraint and to use peaceful means to settle disputes.

In last week’s incident in Ayungin Shoal, CCG personnel – armed with bladed weapons and clubs – boarded Philippine boats and destroyed their navigation and communications equipment to prevent them from completing a resupply mission. The Filipinos tried to stop the Chinese using their bare hands. One of them even lost a finger when the Chinese rammed their vessel.

The Armed Forces of the Philippines assailed China’s illegal presence in the area, and called the actions of its coast guard “coercive, aggressive and barbaric.”

China claims historic rights over virtually the entire South China Sea.

No need for NSC yet

Despite China’s aggressive actions, there is no recommendation yet for Marcos to convene the National Security Council composed of incumbent officials and former presidents, as proposed by Sen. Francis Tolentino.

“At this moment, the situation in Ayungin and the issues in the West Philippine Sea are effectively being managed by the National Maritime Council. In fact, the National Maritime Council has convened and (acted) on the direction of the President. So, at this moment, we are not recommending the convening of the National Security Council,” Año said.

“However, the President has the discretion to convene the full council or the executive committee anytime,” he pointed out.

Teodoro also cited the high morale of soldiers and sailors despite recent challenges.

“In the face of these challenges, they (soldiers) become more inspired to perform their duties,” he said.

In a speech before soldiers in Palawan last Sunday, Marcos maintained that the Philippines would not instigate a war but would not yield to any foreign power.

“In the performance of our duties, we will not resort to the use of force or intimidation, or deliberately inflict injury or harm to anyone,” the President said.

“But at the same time, we stand firm. Our calm and peaceful disposition should not be mistaken for acquiescence.”

In an interview on ANC, retired Supreme Court senior associate justice Antonio Carpio also said the June 17 Ayungin incident cannot be considered an accident or a misunderstanding.

“I do not agree that the incident was an accident because as you can see, it was planned by the Chinese and it was also not a misunderstanding. The Chinese knew that we were bringing supplies. It has been going on for a long time so it cannot be a misunderstanding,” Carpio said.

But he agreed with Bersamin’s statement that the incident was not an armed attack since no firearms were involved.

He noted that the Philippines is wary about using firearms so as not to “invite retaliation” from China.

Beijing also did not want to use arms since it would trigger the MDT. “The last thing they [China] would want is for the Americans to intervene in the dispute,” he said.

He said Manila should go “on the offensive” against China in a legal way, which he explained is still the best course of action to take against Beijing.


DFA’s Lazaro, meanwhile, reiterated the primacy of diplomacy in resolving the issue with China, as Philippine officials are set to meet their Chinese counterparts for the next round of the Bilateral Consultative Mechanism on the South China Sea. The schedule of the next meeting, which is expected to be hosted by Philippines, has yet to be determined.

“I just want to say that Secretary Teodoro mentioned about the peaceful means. Yes, that is always being exercised,” Lazaro told reporters at a Palace press briefing.

“We are also doing something on the diplomatic front. We have a mechanism that has been in existence for quite a number of years,” she said, referring to the Bilateral Consultative Mechanism on the South China Sea with China.

The last meeting was held on Jan. 17 in Shanghai, where the two parties formulated “some confidence-building measures,” according to Lazaro.

Speaker Martin Romualdez, for his part, asked China to “lessen its aggression,” saying that he does not see the issue ending soon.

“We are saddened by China’s very aggressive behavior.  Let’s deescalate the tension,” he said at a press briefing.

According to Romualdez, it is very unlikely for the dispute over the WPS to be resolved “today and not tomorrow” so it is better for the two countries to work for a “peaceful resolution for us.”

“Let us not make this disagreement and conflict in WPS define the totality of the relationship between China and the Philippines,” he pointed out.

Militant group Anakbayan, meanwhile, has condemned China’s actions and that of the US for its military buildup in the country.

“China’s bid to supplant the United States as the dominant imperialist power in the Indo-Pacific has brought great harm to our people,” Anakbayan stated.

It argued, however, that US involvement does more harm than good. “The US has maintained the Philippines as its neo-colony, benefiting from lopsided economic and political agreements,” Anakbayan said in a statement.

“Now, threatened by China’s rise, the US seeks to maintain its hegemony in the Indo-Pacific and use the Philippines as its forward base for war,” the group said.

“It is high time that the West Philippine Sea is demilitarized. We must not allow either China or the US to continue using our sovereign waters in their rivalry,” Anakbayan said.

ACT Teachers party-list Rep. France Castro said the Philippines should not let itself be influenced by the US.

The “saber-rattling of the US government and their mouthpieces are primarily responsible for the escalating tensions in the WPS,” she said.

“While we condemn China’s lies and their continued bullying in our maritime territories, we must also be cautious about falling into the US narrative and playing into their provocation,” she added. — Helen Flores, Sheila Crisostomo, Daphne Galvez, Mark Ernest Villeza

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