Ayungin incident: China’s first move vs Marcos’ US embrace?

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First of a series

(I posted this article half a year ago and am re-posting it, with only the last two paragraphs added, to prove that the August 5 water-cannoning incident should have been expected. A companion piece here is “The harsh reality: We have lost Ayungin Shoal,” which came out two years earlier on Nov. 24, 2021.)

I CERTAINLY hope it’s just coincidental, but the China Coast Guard’s recent blocking of a Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) ship delivering supplies to a platoon of Marines stationed at 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 Aquino 3rd gave them in 2014) under the 2014 Enhanced Cooperation Defense Agreement (EDCA). The Ayungin incident occurred on February 6.

The BRP Sierra Madre near Ayungin Shoal on May 11, 2015. AP FILE PHOTO

The Chinese move was quite serious. The PCG said in a statement that a China 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 was the first time the Chinese have done this.

“Temporary blindness” would be the least of the PCG’s worries.

Military-grade lasers are used to fix targets’ exact locations in modern high-tech warfare. While the China 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, seaborne 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 even 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.

Chinese- and Philippine-occupied features in the Spratlys (Kalayaan Island Group) marked by their respective flags. Drawing by author using Google Earth Pro

Mischief Reef

Ayungin Shoal (200 kilometers from the closest Palawan coast) is just 38 kilometers from Mischief Reef, one of the reefs that the Chinese in 2014 — in retaliation against the arbitration suit that the Aquino 3rd government filed against it — transformed into artificial islands. Ports, airstrips, radio as well as satellite antennas and personnel buildings were built on these, which 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, or KIG, 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 1970s.

I have put our “outpost” in quotation marks as it is a mere pathetic excuse for one. The Chinese first built 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 had run aground by accident and that he had to station troops there to protect against salvage and junk outfits that would have torn it down for its steel. The Chinese have asked every administration after Estrada to remove the vessel, which, however, all lamely replied that we lacked the funds for such removal.

Unwritten

For the past two decades, China and the Philippines have had an unwritten agreement that the former would not block the delivery of food and supplies for the Marine contingent there and their replacement.

However, China’s rule was that the Philippines could not supply the contingent with any material that could be used to protect the vessel 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, though, have romanticized it as a poor country’s heroic defiance of a superpower. China’s strategy, obviously, is that rather than allow the Philippines to exploit the issue as another case of Chinese aggression in the South China Sea, it would 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 flashpoint over the years, whenever the Chinese suspected that Filipino vessels — either private or government — brought in materials for the repair of the rapidly rusting ship and blocked these from approaching it. Beyond the public’s eye, though, the Coast Guard would simply convince the Chinese that it is just bringing food and water to the military contingent living on the dilapidated vessel in order to be let through.

Resupply

In the February 6 incident, though, the PCG did not reveal whether the resupply of BRP Sierra Madre had 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 they 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 they need 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.

They have already included Ayungin as an area that they have 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 whom they can give concessions to, even with their acquiescence to our pretense that we control Ayungin.

It is not improbable that a stand-off 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.

Welcome to the real world, folks. Physics has the for-every-action-a-reaction law, Eastern philosophy has karma, and Graham Allison theorizes the Thucydides Trap, in which a rising state inevitably clashes with the old. There is a consequence to taking sides in the Great Superpower Game, and that “friends-to-all-enemy-to-none motto doesn’t fool anyone. Did we expect the rising superpower to just sit on its ass while the US builds 10 military facilities in our country with weapons and troops aimed at it?

And as that ancient Greek philosopher said, “Right, as the world goes, is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.”

I’m totally convinced: Ayungin will be Marcos’ Bajo de Masinloc.

On Friday, Will the US come to our aid in Ayungin?


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This Post Has One Comment

  1. Dorina S. Rojas

    Our innocent countrymen are taking the cudgels for the stupidity of our leaders.If we lose Ayungin shoal, it is because we have not responded properly to situations involving our claims to the West Philippine Sea. Our Asean neighbors do not seem to agree with us anyway and they have succeeded in claiming and defending their territories without US etc. intervention.

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