• Reading time:12 mins read

Sierra Madre resupply operations: A clever US propaganda scheme

You are currently viewing Sierra Madre resupply operations: A clever US propaganda scheme

THE Philippine Navy’s attempts at resupplying the BRP Sierra Madre with life necessities for its marines stationed there and allegedly with repair materials for the decrepit vessel, and being thwarted by the Chinese through their ship’s maneuvering and use of water cannons is nothing but one of the US most ingenious propaganda schemes to demonize China.

Such demonization projects have been stepped up because of US fears that China is planning to take over by force its rogue province Taiwan sooner rather than later, and it would need both global and local support to defend the island. The interpretation of the 2016 arbitration suit as proving China’s disregard for the rule of law in the South China Sea at worst has been debunked and, at best, ignored. Only Ayungin Shoal remains a handle for the US propaganda scheme against China.

The Philippine Navy in May 1999 deliberately grounded at Ayungin Shoal the BRP Sierra Madre, a Landing Ship Tank (LST), without President Estrada’s permission but under orders of his defense secretary, Orlando Mercado.

Correspondents at Ayungin on LST and waiting for their turn to board the Hueys for a fly over Mischief Reef in 1995; author (in black vest) on the bow of the LST that was blocked by Chinese civilian vessel. The LST would turn turn tail 10 minutes later to abandon Ayungin.

The Chinese were so incensed by the grounding of the Sierra Madre in Ayungin Shoal as President Ramos had de facto given up the area four years earlier in 1995 when his navy vessels fled after being blocked by Chinese Maritime Surveillance vessels. The Chinese blocked the Sierra Madre at Ayungin Shoal on its way to get closer to Mischief Reef to scrimp on aviation fuel for the choppers.

The LST was carrying more than two dozen foreign and local journalists to the area, who later rode on two Bell UH-1 (“Huey”) helicopters to take photos of the facilities that the Chinese had built on stilts in Mischief Reef. Ramos’ operation was successful as the photos were disseminated worldwide and created outrage against China’s alleged “aggression” in the South China Sea, which forms the core of the US’ anti-China propaganda to this day.

(A US Navy intelligence officer Michael Studeman — who rose to become admiral for naval intelligence — however wrote that the Chinese move was in retaliation against Ramos authorization secretly given to US firm Alcorn Petroleum to explore for gas in the nearby Reed Bank.)


This narrative is not from some book or leaked secret documents. I was there, the Far Eastern Economic Review’s correspondent among the foreign correspondents on the LST and then on the helicopters, who were ferried for two nights from Puerto Princesa.

Years later, a general involved in the operation disclosed to me that another expected outcome would have been the Chinese shooting down the helicopters (which had crude “Press” markings but no translation into Chinese), killing us and creating so much international outrage against China that it would be pressured to dismantle and abandon the facility.

That fanned my interest in the disputes in the South China Sea for 29 years, the longest time any journalist has written on this issue. Of course, I cannot be intellectually dishonest over my findings, and I write about it without bias even if jingoists totally ignorant of the facts like the Philippine Coast Guard spokesman Jay Tarriela and Sen. Jinggoy Estrada accuse me of betraying my country.

Estrada’s defense secretary Orlando Mercado asked the Navy for ideas on how to reverse Ramos’ loss of Ayungin. It was the Navy chief then, Eduardo Santos, who proposed the grounding of the Sierra Madre at Ayungin and another LST, the BRP Benguet, near Scarborough, arguing that such vessels represented an “extension of Philippine territory.” That was, however, absurd: only the shipwreck is considered the owning country’s territory, not the area surrounding it. They are required to be removed by international practice as soon as they can by their registered owners or else dismantled by the state nearest to them. Mercado ordered the operation.


Estrada was furious when he learned about the grounding of the vessels and ordered these to be removed ASAP. Estrada wanted to draw the Philippines closer to China, reversing President Ramos’ overly pro-American orientation.

The Chinese threatened to cancel the scheduled official visit in November of that year of Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji to the country. Zhu’s official visit — also to attend an informal meeting of officials from Asean countries, Japan, Korea and China — was supposed to give a boost to Estrada’s international image. While the BRP Benguet was quickly towed away by a Hong Kong tugboat hired by the government, the Navy could not find a tugboat willing to sail through the dangerous waters of the Spratlys. The Sierra Madre’s engines were also damaged, so they couldn’t assist a tugboat in escaping from its grounding.

While China offered to tow it away, Siazon told them this would embarrass the Philippines and would not be good even for the Chinese as the US would manage to distort this as another instance of Chinese aggression.

China and the Philippines reached what they thought was a wise agreement: the Philippines would repair the Sierra Madre’s engines, even if it took the Navy months to do so, and find a vessel powerful enough to tow it. However, it would station a contingent of Marines to guard the vessel from pirates and possible scavengers who would dismantle the ship for its steel.


The Chinese, however, who had known that the vessels were deliberately grounded in order to maintain a symbolic claim in Ayungin Shoal and Scarborough, insisted that while the Philippines could supply the Marines with the necessities of survival, it could not supply it with materials to repair it, much less to transform into a permanent facility.

Administrations after Estrada, including most of Benigno Aquino 3rd’s, had complied with the agreement rather than risking Navy or Coast Guard vessels being blocked and shooed away by Chinese vessels if they attempted to bring in repair materials.

However, in retaliation against the arbitration suit filed in 2013 by the Philippines against China involving the South China Sea issue, the Chinese strongly demanded that year for the Philippines to comply finally with its agreement to remove the Sierra Madre. Department of Foreign Affairs documents show that its secretary, Albert del Rosario, did not deny that there was such an agreement but declared that the shoal was Philippine territory. Still, though, the Aquino government did not violate the agreement and sent only survival supplies to the soldiers on the ship, but not supplies for repairs.


Indeed, photos of the Sierra Madre when it was grounded and a decade after it show its extreme deterioration because of the elements — which could not have happened if the Philippines had ignored the agreement and sent repair supplies secretly.

It would be only in the second year of Ferdinand Marcos Jr.’s presidency that the Navy would publicly deny that an agreement ever existed and tried several times to supply the Sierra Madre with supplies to repair it and even strengthen the structure so it would not sink.

Of course, the Chinese response was to shoo away the supply ships through dangerous maneuvers of its large vessels and the use of water cannons. Every time, though, the Philippine Navy and Coast Guard would have media with them, taking dramatic videos and photos which were then disseminated worldwide to portray China as a “bully,” turning away the weaker, pitiful Philippine boats. It was theater for propaganda.

The propaganda operation involving Ayungin has been so successful that even the foreign ministers of the G7 group of the world’s largest economies, including the US and its closest allies, recently issued a communique opposing “China’s obstruction of high-seas freedom and navigation and its increasing use of dangerous maneuvers and water cannons against Philippines vessels.”

Ayungin Shoal is not on the high seas but is claimed and occupied by China as part of its archipelago called the Nansha Qundao (Kalayaan Island Group to us), recognized internationally before France and then Vietnam occupied it by force. The Philippines under Ramos de facto gave up Ayungin Shoal in 1995. China had to use dangerous maneuvers and water canons, its spokesmen claimed, in a legitimate defense of its territory, which the Philippine Navy was allegedly intruding into without its permission.


The G7 foreign ministers also claimed that there was no legal basis for China to claim Ayungin and its Nansha archipelago as its territory “according to the 2016 arbitral award.”

That, of course, is blatantly false. The arbitral award ruled on the legality of the Philippines’ exclusive economic zones under Unclos provisions but not on China’s sovereignty claims, which kind of sovereignty is totally beyond the Unclos, a treaty that took effect in 1994.

In fact, the Philippines had asked the arbitral tribunal in 2013 to declare illegal China’s alleged interference with the former’s “rotation and resupply” operations for the BRP Sierra Madre.

The tribunal, though, did not rule on China’s claim of sovereignty over Ayungin Shoal. Stupidly, one of the Philippines’ US lawyers even admitted in the suit’s hearings that the country had lost the shoal, which would eventually mean losing any claim of sovereign rights to it:

“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).”


Worse for the Philippines, 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…” As such, it cannot rule on it since Unclos cannot deal with military situations. (Award, paragraph 1160)

Marcos early this month declared the agreement for the Sierra Madre made 29 years ago rescinded: “Should there have been such a secret agreement, I am now rescinding it.” If Marcos felt good saying imperiously that he was rescinding the agreement, he would soon be ruing it. He was clueless that the agreement was really a concession made by the Chinese.

With that agreement rescinded, China now has no reason not to tow the Sierra Madre away and block food supplies to the Marines there, who would starve to death if they didn’t abandon the wreck. Chinese public opinion would even demand such action. The Chinese are now simply mulling how to minimize the very bad portrayal of it when he does so, as the American propaganda scheme planned it.

There is no way the Chinese would not do that.

Facebook: Rigoberto Tiglao

X: @bobitiglao

My website: www.rigobertotiglao.com

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.