FORGET our military establishment’s triumphalist tone that China has buckled under the foreign affairs department’s diplomatic protests against Chinese Coast Guard vessels blocking vessels resupplying the eight Marines stationed at the BRP Sierra Madre.
That dilapidated rust-filled vessel was grounded in 1999 at Ayungin Shoal to function as our outpost to claim our sovereign rights in the area. (The shoal is 40 kilometers from Mischief Reef, which the Chinese occupied in 1994 and where it built huge facilities in 2013 and 2014.)
My statement in my column on Monday that “we will be losing Ayungin Shoal soon” is wrong. We lost Ayungin Shoal (international name: Second Thomas Shoal) way back in 2013.
The recent events have revealed this stark reality: the Chinese now are merely waiting for that 1944 vessel to be totally uninhabitable, as rust totally eats up the vessel, and the ocean waters flood its chambers.
Ironically, it was one of the late President Aquino 3rd’s American lawyers in the arbitration suit, Philippe Sands, who first conceded — a stupid blunder — during a hearing in November 2015 that the country he represented had lost the shoal:
“China took de facto control of that feature in May 2013. Chinese marine surveillance vessels, navy warships and fishing administration vessels have surrounded the shoal. They have blocked Philippine vessels, including civilian vessels, from approaching Second Thomas Shoal.” (Transcript of hearing, Day 2, page 158).
The tribunal quoted that statement by Aquino 3rd’s lawyers in its award but threw out their arguments to rule that China was in violation of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos) on two grounds.
First, the award declared: “The tribunal has reviewed the record identified by the Philippines and is not able to identify a single documented instance in which Chinese government vessels acted to prevent Filipino fishermen from fishing at either Second Thomas Shoal or Mischief Reef. The tribunal considers that the Philippines has not established that China has prevented Filipino fishermen from fishing at Mischief Reef or Second Thomas Shoal and that, in this respect, the provisions of the convention concerning fisheries are not implicated.” (Award, paragraph 714 and 715)
Second and more importantly, the tribunal ruled that Chinese vessels’ actions to prevent Philippine government vessels from resupplying the BRP Sierra Madre in May 2014 were “a quintessentially military situation, involving the military forces of one side and a combination of military and paramilitary forces on the other, arrayed in opposition to one another…” (Award, paragraph 1160). It ruled that such military situations in a dispute over territory were beyond its jurisdiction as well as of the Unclos.
Yes, the tribunal agreed that Ayungin was within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ) as defined by Unclos. However, it did not rule that China’s claim of sovereignty over it since it is part of the Spratlys, which calls it “Nansha” archipelago, as illegal. What it did rule was that the so-called nine-dash line had no basis. But nowhere in China’s constitution and declarations did it claim that the line was its basis for claiming sovereignty over the Spratlys.
Bringing the Ayungin issue to the arbitration suit was a big blunder. It wasn’t among the complaints the Aquino regime included in the suit when it was filed in January 2013, and it was included only after the 2014 incident when Chinese ships drove away the supply vessels to Ayungin.
How can the US or its allies assist the Philippines in maintaining its presence in Ayungin when an international tribunal, which the Americans even likely influenced, had ruled that the shoal was the subject of a legitimate territorial dispute?
BRP Sierra Madre does not represent our outpost to maintain our claim in Ayungin Shoal as part of our EEZ, which clashes with China’s stand that it is part of its Nansha archipelago that is part of its sovereign territory. It is so entirely different from the modified oil rigs that the Vietnamese have built in the Spratlys to strengthen their sovereign claims.
Since 1999, our foreign affairs officials have just been telling their counterparts that its grounding was an accident, and that it will be towed away “tomorrow.” Even Aquino’s foreign affairs secretary told his counterpart that his government did not have the money yet to remove it but promised it would.
It’s quite obvious that China has allowed the Philippines to resupply the eight Marines there since 1999, or for 22 years — or there’ll be nothing there but skeletons. “We have done this for humanitarian reasons,” a Chinese official said, “since the Philippines claims the Marines are just there to guard the vessel that was grounded accidentally.” Such practice has served to prevent a deterioration in the relationship of the two countries, as Philippine presidents had put up the fiction that Ayungin Shoal was still under our control, “as evidenced” by the BRP Sierra Madre there with eight Marines.
Obviously called in to help in the demonization of China by their Deep State masters, US media after the Aquino 3rd regime filed its arbitration suit against China romanticized the outpost, depicting it as a poor country’s heroic attempt to resist Chinese bullying. The New York Times in a 2013 article “A Game of Shark and Minnow,” for instance, even had their reporter visit the dilapidated ship, who reported, “Of all places, the scorched shell of the Sierra Madre has become an unlikely battleground in a geopolitical struggle that will shape the future of the South China Sea and, to some extent, the rest of the world.”
That is stretching it too much. Sierra Madre is hardly a battleground, and the reality is that China is playing with the ship as a cat plays with a cornered mouse, telling it what it can and cannot do.
Military sources claimed that the Chinese had imposed two conditions on the Sierra Madre so it could be supplied and its eight-man detachment replaced with fresh new personnel. First, it cannot increase the number of Marines there from the existing eight, and neither can it be supplied with high-powered weapons, other than hand-carried guns and rifles.
Second, it cannot bring materials to repair the vessel, or to build structures on the shoal, as the Chinese did on Mischief Reef. This is the reason why the vessel’s deterioration and build-up of rust have been so bad.
The Chinese blocked the Philippine vessels resupplying the Sierra Madre in 2014, when it found that one vessel was ferrying more Marines that would increase the detachment there. The Philippine Navy was forced to just airdrop the supplies.
Last week, sources claimed the Philippine vessels were unusually covered with tarpaulins that the Chinese suspected that they were carrying materials to repair the vessel, or even construction materials to build some kind of facility on the shoal. When the Chinese were convinced that it wasn’t — some of the tarpaulins were blown away by the water cannons — they allowed the Philippine vessels to resupply the Sierra Madre.
The Chinese it seems — true to their “marathon” thinking — will just wait until the Sierra Madre is so eaten by rust that it will sink, and our eight Marines will beg a Chinese Coast Guard to rescue them. Indeed, a standing joke among the Marines in Sierra Madre that the New York Times article reported, is about “visiting China without a passport.”
Grounding the Sierra Madre as a desperate way to maintain our claim on Ayungin Shoal was a very bad idea. Nobody believes it is an outpost maintaining our claim over Ayungin Shoal. It has been a national disgrace.
On May 28, 2013, Maj. Gen. Zhaozhong of China’s People Liberation Army in an interview pointed out that Chinese control of the Second Thomas Shoal is at the same level as two other features that fell into that country’s hands in 2012 and 1994: “Over the past few years, we have made a series of achievements at the Nansha Islands (the Spratly Islands}, the greatest of which I think have been on the Huangyan Island [Scarborough Shoal], Meiji Reef (Mischief Reef) and Ren’ai Shoal (Second Thomas Shoal).”
And all along I thought the Aquino regime had lost only Scarborough Shoal.
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