THE Philippine Coast Guard’s (PCG) failed attempt last week to enter Ayungin Shoal — also claimed by China which effectively controls it — indeed hogged, as intended, local and global media’s headlines for days. (The shoal is Rén’ài Jiāo to the Chinese and Bãi Cỏ Mây to Vietnamese which also claims it.)
This incident is far, far more serious than most people would think. It could have led — by design on the part of the PCG or accident on the part of both countries — to the deaths of about two dozen foreign and local journalists as well as the PCG crew that was misinformed why they were at the area.
After three days at sea coming from Manila, a PCG vessel BRP Malapascua and another ship BRP Malabrigo, carrying local and foreign journalists, on April 23 steamed toward Ayungin. Two China Coast Guard vessels shadowed the two PCG ships for two days.
The Chinese vessel asked the PCG to leave the area claiming it is part of its sovereign territory, and the vessel had nor permission to enter it. The PCG in turn asked the Chinese to leave it, as the shoal was within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone.
The shoal is about 35 kilometers from Mischief Reef, which China in 2014 to 2015 had transformed into an artificial island with facilities including a 2,700 meter airstrip that could overnight make it into a huge military platform. The China Coast Guard vessels from its port at Mischief Reef have been regularly patrolling Ayungin Shoal, apparently to make sure the Philippine Navy’s rusting World War 2 vintage ship the BRP Sierra Madre that ran aground there in 1999, isn’t repaired or made into a bigger platform.
When Malapascua started to enter the shoal toward the Sierra Madre itself, one Chinese ship steamed faster and maneuvered to block it from further moving toward the shoal. A collision was averted only at the last minute when the PCG ship was just 45 meters away and its captain realized the Chinese ship wasn’t evading and frantically reversed the Malapascua’s engines to make a dead stop. That it could have been a deadly collision is indicated in the photos that show the Malapascua, because of its momentum ending up at the China Coast Guard vessel’s port side.
We are reminded how serious the incident was with the collision the other day of two foreign vessels off Corregidor, killing two of its officers and the smaller ship capsizing. In the case of the Chinese coast guard said to be thrice the size of the Philippine Coast Guard, it would certainly have been our vessel which would have sunk.
If it did, the casualties would have sparked international outrage. It doesn’t seem coincidental that the PCG undertook its operation to Ayungin just when there was a sizable US military presence here undertaking joint exercises with Philippine forces under the so-called Balikatan program.
I may have understated how serious the incident was. If international outrage had erupted as a result of the PCG vessel’s sinking, it is not unlikely that US President Biden — criticized by the opposition and even by his party-mates as old, weak and indecisive and facing an uphill battle to be nominated for the presidential race next year — would have ordered his forces to retaliate against the Chinese, triggering a war between America and China that could have even led to a nuclear war.
If the PCG ship had been sunk in a collision, it could be portrayed by US hawks as an armed attack on a Philippine government vessel, and thus the Mutual Defense Treaty must be complied with.
I didn’t invent such a scenario out of the blue. This idea of bringing media to the disputed Spratlys in order, as the PCG chief said, to “call international attention to China’s aggressiveness” is not new.
It was President Fidel Ramos — his National Security Adviser Jose Almonte, some say — who first invented such an operation, with media as cannon fodder, or if you like, human shields. No other country has done a similar operation.
In 1994, China occupied and built small structures on stilts in Mischief Reef, which was discovered only several months later after the typhoon season.
The Ramos administration raised a furor over the Chinese move as it became the Chinese-occupied feature closest to the Philippines’ mainland. The US and Western press condemned it as a Chinese move in its overall plan to grab the entire Spratly archipelago.
While China simply claimed the reef was part of its sovereign territory, its move to occupy it was in reaction to the Ramos government’s grant of a permit in May 1994 to local firm Alcorn Petroleum and US company Vaalco Energy to explore oil in the Reed Bank (Recto Bank in Philippine maps) which China claims is part of its sovereign territory.
The Chinese protested the issuance of the permits while Ramos’ energy secretary insisted the area was within Philippine territorial waters. But a few weeks later, these energy officials withdrew the permit, lamely explaining this was merely for “desktop” surveys, or a re-study of existing seismic surveys on the Reed Bank without any field operations.
Since there had been talks in early 1994 for a joint development in the Reed Bank between the PRC and the Philippines, the issuance of the secret permit to Alcorn-Vaalco convinced China that the Ramos government was double-crossing it. It retaliated three months later by occupying and building small structures on Mischief Reef partly to send the message to Manila and Southeast Asia that it had not dropped its sovereignty claim over the entire Spratlys.
The Ramos government moved to rouse world public opinion against China’s occupation of Mischief Reef. In May 1995, it undertook an operation to ferry 39 mostly foreign journalists on World War 2-era tank landing ships (LSTs) to the reef, who were then flown on Vietnam-era UH-1 (“Huey”) helicopters to fly over the structures and take photos of the structures.
Ramos’ security officials explained this was necessary to inform the world about what was happening in Mischief Reef and to pressure China to vacate it. Indeed, the Mischief Reef photos were splashed all over global media, with dramatic footage of journalists flown on Huey choppers to buzz the Chinese structures.
I was one of the journalists who flew over Mischief Reef, on the helicopters that were crudely marked with the word “PRESS” using duct tape.
As a young reporter, I felt that it was a privilege to have joined the group, to have gone to the disputed Spratlys and seen for myself the much talked about Chinese structures that from above, looked to be octagonal in shape and had both wooden and metal stilts for support.
Years later, a member of Ramos’ security cluster that had planned the operation told me that one major “concern” raised in their heated and long deliberations over the operation was the possibility that there would be Chinese soldiers on the structure who would fire at the helicopters, to shoot them down together with all the journalists. After all, there was the possibility that a Chinese stationed on the reef wouldn’t understand the English word “PRESS” made with packing tape and stuck to the fuselage of the combat helicopters.
Ramos’ officials obviously felt the risk was worth it. One of Ramos’ close advisers even reportedly said that it would after all be “good for the country.” After all, it was a strategy of the same kind that Ramos and then Defense Secretary Juan Ponce Enrile used in 1986, when they called in the foreign press to help defend them in Camp Crame and to deter Marcos forces from immediately bombing the area. My colleagues and I were cannon fodders in that operation.
Fortunately for me and my media colleagues, the Chinese didn’t fire at the helicopters. A Chinese government vessel, however, blocked the LST when it tried to get closer to the reef.
After half an hour of that stand-off, the LST carrying the journalists turned around and left for its Palawan base.
That episode, and the later realization that my colleagues and I in that media trip were cannon fodder for propaganda purposes (and that we could have been the first civilian casualties in the SCS dispute) certainly maintained my interest in the controversy all through these years.
Even with the outrage whipped up by Ramos’ operation, the Chinese didn’t budge at Mischief. Twenty-years later, it retaliated against the Aquino 3rd government’s filing of a suit in an international venue, an arbitral panel, by transforming Mischief Reef and six other reefs it had occupied earlier into artificial islands complete with facilities that could make them military fortresses overnight.
Did the PCG commander know what he was doing? Did he get authority for such operations that could have very serious ramifications from his immediate supervisor Transportation Secretary Jaime Bautista and even from President Marcos Jr.?
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