Gearing up vs China blocking actions near Ayungin Shoal

AT GROUND LEVEL - Satur C. Ocampo - The Philippine Star

China has been stepping up its pressure tactics in the West Philippine Sea, deploying a naval warship, alongside the China Coast Guard and maritime militia, in blocking an unarmed Philippine boat carrying supplies to the troops manning an outpost aboard the ship BRP Sierra Madre in Ayungin Shoal.

Expressing concern, former AFP chief Andres Centino was quoted by Business Mirror on April 3 as telling reporters, “We have observed that aside from the Coast Guard we see PLA [People’s Liberation Army] Navy ships within the area.”

It wasn’t clear in the news report  whether Centino was referring to the incident on March 23 where three Filipino soldiers aboard a resupply ship were hurt during a prolonged water cannoning by China Coast Guard boats. But he told reporters, after a maritime forum held at the University of the Philippines recently, that the incident apparently spurred President Marcos Jr. to form the National Maritime Council (NMC) and “recalibrate” maritime defense policy.

Following the March 23 incident, Marcos Jr. issued this statement:

“Over the succeeding weeks, there shall be implemented by the relevant national government agencies and instrumentalities a response and countermeasure package that is proportionate, deliberate and reasonable in the face of the open, unabating and illegal coercive, aggressive and dangerous attacks by agents of the China Coast Guard and the Chinese Maritime Militia.”

Soon enough, on March 25, Marcos Jr. signed Executive Order 57 creating the National Maritime Council. He designated Executive Secretary Lucas Bersamin to head the new body. The NMC replaced the National Coast Watch Council as the “central body in charge of formulating policies and strategies” on the country’s maritime security and domain awareness.

Centino now heads the Presidential Office for Maritime Concerns, the NMC’s designated secretariat. As POMC head, he would report directly to the President on critical and urgent matters and issues affecting the country’s maritime security and domain awareness. 

A dozen Cabinet secretaries have been named to constitute the NMC. They include the secretaries of defense, foreign affairs, justice, interior and local government, agriculture, energy, environment, transportation, plus the solicitor general, the national security adviser and the national intelligence coordinating agency head.

EO 57 named as support agencies to the NMC the AFP, the PNP, the NBI, the bureaus of customs, immigration, fisheries and aquatic resources and the Philippine Center for Transnational Crime, Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency and National Mapping and Resource Information Authority.

One aspect of EO 57 immediately received a negative response: its Section 7, which authorizes the NMC to accept “donations, contributions, grants, bequests or gifts from domestic and foreign sources.” Sen. Imee Marcos pointed out that this particular provision “welcomes many a Trojan horse of foreign interference.”

“To prevent yet another regional conflict, what we need instead are solutions for peace from those who claim to be our genuine allies,” she suggested. It’s a troubling and significant detail indeed, but Malacañang has not replied.

Centino recalled how China’s behavior in the West Philippine Sea evolved over the last few years. During previous “rotation and supply missions” to the BRP Sierra Madre military outpost in Ayungin Shoal, he said, only the China Coast Guard and its Chinese militia vessels actively blocked the Philippine supply boats. They were fewer then, he noted.

Not only has the number of such ships increased, but now, Centino said, they have started blocking or challenging the rotation and supply missions farther away from the shore.

The methods used by China in disrupting the resupply missions have also changed, according to Centino. “It already caused harm and injury” to the Filipino supply ship crew, as when two China Coast Guard boats directed water cannons on them for one hour in the latest incident on March 23.

When he signed EO 57, Marcos Jr. said:

“Despite efforts to promote stability and security in our maritime domain, the Philippines continues to confront a range of serious challenges that threaten not only the country’s territorial integrity, but also the peaceful existence of Filipinos, including their fundamental rights to live in peace and freedom, free from fear of violence and threat.”

He called for unspecified “countermeasures” to be implemented against “illegal, coercive, aggressive and dangerous attacks” by the China Coast Guard in the West Philippine Sea.

The National Security Council spokesperson, Jonathan Malaya, said Marcos Jr. did call for strengthening Philippine defense capabilities with allies (chiefly the United States), but averred that the countermeasures he espoused are “multidimensional.”

 “The proportionate, deliberate and reasonable response the President was talking about covered not only the aspect of strengthening military and defense capabilities with other allies… but also talks about exhausting diplomatic efforts to resolve the issue,” he explained.

Although the latest Pulse Asia public opinion survey reports a drop in Marcos Jr.’s approval ratings, it probably is not related to Malacañang’s response to the situation in the West Philippine Sea. There is firm and strong public support for our assertion of sovereign rights and territorial integrity. 

In the House of Representatives, Deputy Majority Leader Janette Garin echoed the call for exhausting all diplomatic measures to resolve the maritime dispute with China as it continues to fester.

“This issue cannot be solved overnight by one president alone,” Garin said. “What is important is that we are seeing concrete steps that the leadership of the country will not yield even an inch of territory,” she added.

In the Senate, Majority Leader Joel Villanueva has filed a resolution expressing the Senate’s outrage and condemnation of the continued “illegal and dangerous actions” by the Chinese side in the West Philippine Sea. The resolution also urged the national government to “exert all legal and diplomatic countermeasures” in asserting our sovereign rights.

The NMC was supposed to have met this week to formulate comprehensive strategies from military, political, legal and diplomatic moves to manage the conflict with China in the West Philippine Sea. We await the outcome with fingers crossed.

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