I CERTAINLY hope it is just coincidental, but a Chinese coast guard’s recent blocking of a Philippine Coast Guard ship delivering supplies to a platoon of Marines stationed at the Ayungin Shoal (Second Thomas Shoal) could be China’s first response to President Ferdinand Marcos Jr.’s recent moves to place the country in alliance with the United States.
Marcos on February 2 agreed to allow the US to use as it pleases four more of our military camps (on top of the five that President Benigno Aquino 3rd gave it in 2014) under the 2014 Enhanced Cooperation Defense Agreement. The Ayungin incident occurred on February 6.
The Chinese move was quite serious. The Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) in a statement said that a Chinese Coast Guard vessel shone a “military-grade” green laser light twice at the Philippine ship, “causing temporary blindness to her crew at the bridge.” This is the first time the Chinese have done this.
“Temporary blindness” would be the least of the PCG’s worries.
Military-grade lasers are used for fixing targets’ exact locations in modern high-tech warfare. While the Chinese Coast Guard vessel may not be equipped with missiles and cannons, beaming a laser light on vessels would give precise geographical coordinates to an out-of-sight vessel, sea or airborne, for their weapons to target. The laser lights could have been the last thing the PCG officers would have seen in their lives, seconds before missiles or just cannons sank their vessel.
While the PCG was publicly unfazed and vowed to “protect our sovereignty over” Ayungin Shoal, that appears — 23 years since the “outpost” has been there — to be wishful thinking.
Ayungin Shoal (200 kilometers from the closest Palawan coast) is just 38 kilometers from Mischief Reef, one of the reefs where the Chinese in 2014 — in retaliation against the arbitration suit that President Aquino 3rd’s government filed against it — transformed into artificial islands. Ports, airstrips, radio as well as satellite antennas and personnel buildings were built on these that would make them full-fledged military fortifications overnight. In sharp contrast, our Pag-asa Island — our main military outpost in the Spratlys (Kalayaan Island Group, to us) — is 220 kilometers away. There have been no major military facilities built there since the strongman Ferdinand E. Marcos Sr. occupied it in the 1970.
I have put our “outpost” in quotation marks as it is merely a pathetic excuse for such. The Chinese had built the first three octagonal facilities on stilts on Mischief Reef in 1994. When they constructed several more of these in 1999, President Joseph Estrada — keen on establishing his nationalist credentials — ordered a World War 2 landing ship, the BRP Sierra Madre, to be deliberately run aground on Ayungin Shoal, which is permanently underwater, to represent our sovereignty over the area.
The Estrada government implicitly recognized that Ayungin was subject to a territorial dispute, as it is claimed both by the Philippines (that it was part of our Kalayaan Island Group) and China (that it is part of what it calls the Nansha archipelago). The Estrada government told the Chinese that the vessel ran aground by accident, and that it has to station troops there to protect against salvage and junk outfits that would have torn it down for its steel. The Chinese had asked every administration after Estrada to remove the vessel, which however all lamely replied that we lacked funds for such removal.*
For the past two decades, China and the Philippines have had an unwritten agreement that the former would not block delivery of food and supplies for the Marine contingent there, and their replacement.
However, China’s rule was that the Philippines cannot supply the contingent with any material they could use to protect it from degradation, much less repair the ship. Thus, exposure to the elements and especially rust have made the BRP Sierra Madre over the years look like a phantom ship.
Ignorant US and Filipino writers have romanticized it as a poor country’s heroic defiance of a superpower. China’s strategy obviously is that rather than making it an issue, the Philippines could exploit as another case of Chinese aggression in the South China Sea, it will just wait for the BRP Sierra Madre to decay by sheer exposure to the elements or be destroyed by some powerful typhoon so that our Marines would have to abandon it. When that happens, the Chinese will swiftly build their own fortifications, materials for which have been stockpiled at the nearby Mischief Reef.
Ayungin Shoal has been an occasional flash point over the years, whenever the Chinese suspected that Filipino vessels — either private and government — brought in materials for the repair of the rapidly rusting ship and blocked them from approaching it. Beyond the public’s eye though, the Coast Guard would simply convince the Chinese that it is just bringing in food and water to the military contingent living on the dilapidated vessel in order to be let through.
In the February 6 incident though, the PCG did not reveal whether the resupply of BRP Sierra Madre succeeded or not.
Going by the international law principle of “effectivités” (occupation) as justification for our sovereignty over Ayungin, the presence of the BRP Sierra Madre with a Marine platoon appears to be flimsy. We have an “outpost” there, but the Chinese control the area, to the extent that it can even starve our helpless Marine contingent there.
Indeed, the Chinese are merely humoring us, evading condemnation that they are again claiming territory that is not theirs, by allowing the contingent to continue living in the rusting ship.
I suspect that stance will change, and the Chinese will claim it needs to build a fortress at Ayungin Shoal to counter the US moves to use the new Philippine camps that Marcos allowed them, as bases to attack their Nansha Island.
The Chinese have already included Ayungin as an area that they had already managed to control. People Liberation Army Maj. Gen. Zhaozhong in an interview on May 28, 2013 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).”
Or the Chinese will simply say that by giving the US more bases that it can use to attack them, we are no longer their friends that they can give concessions to, even its acquiescence to our pretense that we control Ayungin.
It is not improbable that a standoff similar to the Scarborough Shoal crisis in 2012 that led to our loss of that territory could occur in the near future, this time involving Chinese vessels blocking any resupply of BRP Sierra Madre, until our starving troops are forced to abandon it, thus formalizing Chinese sovereignty over the shoal.
On Friday: Will the US help us in case China occupies Ayungin Shoal?
* Details and sources cited for these statements are in my 2022 book Debacle: The Aquino Regime’s Scarborough Fiasco and the South China Sea Arbitration Deception. Available at www.rigobertotiglao.com/shop, amazon.com, Popular Book Store, La Solidaridad Books.
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