ON December 15 several Philippine mainstream media outlets screamed similar front-page headlines — which were fake news. These were obviously spread to keep up the tensions triggered two days earlier by the Philippine Coast Guard when, with boats that it had hired, it entered Ayungin Shoal (Ren’ai Dao), which China considers as part of its Nansha archipelago, without permission — and were water-cannoned away.
“Sino vessels at Ayungin seen in ‘invasion’ mode,” the Philippine Daily Inquirer banner story screamed. “Chinese ships enter Ayungin,” was The Manila Times‘ howling banner headline. The US Naval Institute website had the same “story”: “Chinese Maritime Militia vessels swarmed within and around Second Thomas Shoal this week in Beijing’s latest move against the Philippines in the South China Sea.”
There was no such “invasion” mode, no swarming. The vessels — numbering just 11 — were the typical Chinese fishing vessels that routinely use the shoal as a refuge or resting area after refueling and resupplying at Mischief Reef, just 20 kilometers away. In retaliation against the Philippine arbitration suit against it, China started building in 2014 on Mischief Reef, one of its biggest South China facilities, complete with an airstrip, ports and barracks, which has become a port of call for Chinese fishing vessels.
US propagandists now never call ordinary Chinese fishing vessels as such. They always call them “militia,” exploiting a Chinese law that fishing vessels could be deputized as a naval militia in case they’re needed in some conflict. It is downright illogical, though to see their main role as “militia”: Is there a shooting war going on in the South China Sea? Or is the reality simply that China’s private sector has just, in the past few years, built the world’s largest shipping fleet composed of 3,000 steel-hulled vessels?
There was a single source for these fake news reports, probably laughing at Philippine media in an office on the other side of the globe: retired US Airforce officer Ray Powell, whom the two papers identified as “director of SeaLight and Project Lead for Project Myoushu at Stanford University’s Gordian Knot Center for National Security Innovation.”
The two publications though were too lazy to find out what that Gordian Knot Center is: a think tank financed by the US Naval Research Center — known for decades for its intelligence-gathering espionage and counter-propaganda activities. Powell’s “Project Myoushu,” started last year, is unabashedly dedicated “to counter China for its island-building campaign and aggressive employment of a large, forward staged military-paramilitary force.” It is a part of the US Navy’s Maritime Counterinsurgency Project dedicated to “countering” alleged Chinese moves in the South China Sea.
Ironically, alleged as Project Myoushu’s local operators is that motley group headed by an ex-priest, ex-communist, the now crackpot Ed de la Torre, who was one of the founders of the once anti-US National Democratic Front.
While the US, of course, does not reveal intelligence operatives, the background of Myoushu’s director, Powell, fits that of a Cold Warrior or a full-time intelligence officer to a T. Powell had a 35-year career in the US Air Force until November 2021. After enlisting in 1986, he was trained as a Vietnamese linguist, then served tours in the Philippines and Hawaii before receiving his commission in 1993 through Officer Training School. He went on to serve in various operations management and cyber communications roles. He served as the air attaché to Vietnam from 2013 to 2016 and the senior defense official/defense attaché to Australia from 2017 to 2020. His other assignments have included Japan and Germany, two tours in Qatar, and three in the Pentagon. He was also deployed to combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Since he was never an academic, Powell revealed his ignorance of the South China dispute when he jumped up and down, surprised it seems that there were 11 fishing vessels at Ayungin Shoal.
He was oblivious to the fact that we lost Mischief Reef and the Ayungin Shoal adjacent to it to the Chinese in 1995 — 28 years ago.
A 1998 article in the US Naval War College by Michael Studeman (who retired as rear admiral commanding the Office of Naval Intelligence only last July) explained what drove China to occupy the reef, its first move into the Spratlys after seven years:
“Joint development talks between China and the Philippines over gas-rich Reed Bank broke down in early 1994; in May, Manila decided to grant a six-month oil exploration permit to Alcorn Petroleum and Minerals. The Philippines was interested in collecting seismic data on the seabed southwest of Reed Bank. Manila hoped the contract would remain a secret, but news of the collaboration soon leaked. Beijing swiftly issued a statement reasserting its sovereignty over the area covered by the license and ignored Manila’s belated invitation to become a partner in the project.
Manila backpedaled on the diplomatic front for weeks, but the damage had been done. By secretly licensing an exploration effort, the Philippines had appeared to engage in unilateral efforts to exploit the natural resources of the Spratlys. Stung by Manila’s “betrayal, China decided to advance eastward for better surveillance coverage of any Philippine-sponsored oil exploration.”
It built an observation post of structures on stilts in late 1994 — just before Unclos took effect in November — in Mischief Reef, which is the lower-middle section of the Alcorn concession; a presence there would also strengthen China’s hand if petroleum were discovered in the area.
President Fidel Ramos tried to pressure China to leave Mischief Reef, naïvely, by ferrying on a World War 2 vintage Landing Ship 39 foreign and local journalists (including me) to fly over the area on UH-1H helicopters to take photos. Ramos thought that by disseminating these photos around the world, he could pressure China to leave Mischief Reef.
China was unfazed though, declaring that it had always owned the Spratlys archipelago since even before World War 1, and it was merely exercising its sovereignty when it built the stilts at Mischief. China would gradually build up its Mischief Reef outpost into an artificial island, especially after the Philippines filed its arbitration suit in 2013.
I personally witnessed the loss of Mischief Reef and Ayungin to the Chinese. After all the journalists had flown over Mischief Reef to take photos, a small Chinese fishing vessel blocked the LST from moving further from the shoal toward the reef.
After an hour of that stand-off, the LST turned around to leave. The captain pointed toward the horizon to what he said where two Chinese navy frigates puffing black smoke as they rushed to the scene. “We aren’t a warship,” he said. The LST went on full steam to leave the shoal, and we never got to see the Chinese frigates. Officially, however, by turning tail, the Philippines had given up territory it had claimed to be part of the Kalayaan Island Group. I was told by a source in the Ramos government that the US had informed him it could not intervene by sending its Navy to escort the LST.
Why we still have Ayungin Shoal as a flashpoint is the result of Joseph Estrada’s chaotic management. His defense secretary, Orlando Mercado, apparently thought he was a pillar of that government since he brought the military to defect from the Estrada government, which led to his fall; without getting the president’s approval, he undertook a project his generals recommended to him as a way of asserting Philippine sovereignty, especially as the Chinese started strengthening and expanding the shelters they built at Mischief Reef.
Arguing that a commissioned ship technically is “Philippine soil,” Estrada’s military deliberately grounded an LST near Bajo de Masinloc and the BRP Sierra Madre at Ayungin Shoal in 1999.
The Chinese protested furiously and informed the Estrada government it was an insult as China’s Premier Zhu Rongzi was scheduled to undertake a state visit to the country a month later. Estrada’s foreign secretary Domingo Siazon, who was closer to the president than Mercado, was then on a campaign to get the Philippines closer to Bejing, as Estrada had wanted, as he had long believed in the leftist history of the US as an imperialist power.
Siazon got Estrada to stop Mercado’s operations. The Philippine Navy, however, dilly-dallied and got to remove only the grounded vessel at Bajo de Masinloc. Siazon told the Chinese to put the issue out of media attention and promised to remove the Sierra Madre. To prove this commitment, Siazon agreed that the Philippines would supply the marine contingent on the ship only with food, water and medicine. It would not supply it with construction and other materials that would have prevented it from rusting and sinking into the sea. This explains the very pathetic dilapidated state of the Sierra Madre.
Ironically, it was one of the late Aquino 3rd’s American lawyers in the arbitration suit, Philippe Sands, who first conceded — another stupid blunder — during a hearing in November 2015 that the Philippines had already lost the shoal:
De facto control
“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).
Subsequent administrations, even that of Benigno Aquino 3rd, complied with the country’s agreement not to send construction and repair materials. In an unexpected turn of events, Ferdinand Marcos Jr., however, declared a few months ago that if “there were such an agreement, he was rescinding it.”
Thus, the recent absurd events when the Coast Guard and the Navy try to bring construction materials to the Sierra Madre and are shooed away with water cannons. When small boats bringing only food and water are allowed through the blockade to resupply the Sierra Madre, the Navy and Coast Guard officials hilariously proclaim to be successful in defending Philippine sovereignty.
The depths of humiliation our generals and admirals have brought us to is insane. Have they no shame?
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