MANILA, Philippines—The Philippines on Tuesday protested the actions by the Chinese Coast Guard that prevented the delivery of supplies on March 9 to a small group of Filipino soldiers guarding the Ayungin Shoal in the disputed Spratly group in the South China Sea, the second diplomatic action it has taken in as many weeks against Beijing’s intrusion into its exclusive economic zone (EEZ).
The Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) said that Chinese ships prevented Filipino civilian vessels hired by the Philippine Navy on Sunday from reaching the Second Thomas Shoal, which is called Ayungin Shoal by the Philippines and Ren’ai Reef by the Chinese.
The Filipino troops awaiting fresh supplies are stationed on a decrepit military hospital ship, the Sierra Madre, that ran aground in 1999 on the shallow coral outcrop of Ayungin. The rusty ship has since become the symbol of the country’s sovereignty over the area. China has been demanding the removal of Sierra Madre, claiming that the area is part of Chinese territory.
Chinese charge d’affaires Sun Xiangyang was summoned and handed the protest note. Less than a month ago, the Philippines also protested a Chinese water cannon attack on Filipino fishermen near another disputed shoal, the Scarborough, or Panatag, Shoal.
Sun rejected the protest and reiterated China’s “indisputable sovereignty” over the Spratlys, China’s “usual response,” the DFA said.
Both shoals are within the country’s 370-kilometer EEZ in an area of the South China Sea that the Philippines calls the West Philippine Sea. Ayungin is located some 200 kms away from Pag-Asa, an island in the Spratlys that has long been under Philippine control.
“Ayungin Shoal is part of the continental shelf of the Philippines and, therefore, the Philippines is entitled to exercise sovereignty rights and jurisdiction in the area without the permission of other states. Furthermore, the civilian vessels contracted by the Philippine Navy were only conducting rotation of personnel and resupply operations,” said Assistant Secretary Raul Hernandez, the DFA spokesman.
Beijing itself reported on Monday that two of its coast guard ships had driven away two Filipino vessels approaching the shoal, as it suspected that they were carrying construction materials. The DFA, however, said the two ships were on a routine resupply mission to the shoal for a small contingent of troops.
The incident marks the first time that China interfered in the regular resupply and personnel rotation for troops at the shoal in 15 years, Hernandez said.
“China’s actions constitute a clear and urgent threat to the rights and interests of the Philippines under the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos),” he told a press briefing on Tuesday.
Hernandez said the note verbale handed over to the Chinese charges d’affaires expressed the Philippine government’s objection to China’s actions and urged China to desist from any further interference with the efforts of the Philippines to undertake rotation and resupply operations at the Ayungin Shoal.”
Rusting hospital ship
“The Chinese Coast Guard ships blocked our two vessels which were en route to Ayungin (Shoal) to reprovision. The full report is being finalized and will be submitted to DFA,” said Peter Paul Galvez, spokesman for the Department of National Defense.
Galvez said the ships blocked by the Chinese had been hired by the government and were not vessels of the Philippine Navy.
The Philippines grounded the BRP Sierra Madre, a rusting Navy hospital ship, on the Ayungin Shoal shortly after the Chinese encroached on the neighboring Mischief Reef, which is also part of Philippine territory, in 1995.
A group of Marine soldiers guard the Ayungin Shoal, staying at the ship for three months before they are rotated. They mostly subsist on fish and seafood. A military doctor’s report last year showed that the soldiers returned malnourished from their tour of duty.
Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin and Armed Forces Chief Gen. Emmanuel Bautista, in separate interviews, declined to comment on China’s latest actions, saying that the DFA that would issue the government’s official statement.
Quoting a report from the military, Hernandez told the press briefing that the two Filipino vessels were en route to the Ayungin Shoal at 9:30 a.m. on Sunday when they were “trailed” by the two Chinese coast guard vessels 3112 and 3113. Personnel from the Chinese vessels proceeded to shoo away the Filipinos, he said.
The Chinese ships signaled warnings to the Philippine vessels “through digital signboard, sirens and megaphones,” he said. The Chinese vessels told the Filipino vessels “to leave the area, because they said that was their jurisdiction,” Hernandez said.
“The Philippine vessels decided to abort the resupply and the rotation of personnel in Ayungin Shoal and went back to Palawan,” he said.
However, Hernandez said he did not have details on what transpired during the space of nearly two hours between the Chinese warnings and the decision of the Filipinos to leave.
He said the government will eventually resupply the Filipino troops at the shoal.
“We are hoping to be able to resupply them, that’s why we are asking China to desist from interfering in our sovereign duty to bring provisions [to our troops]. We have been doing that for about 16 years without interference from China,” he said.—Tarra Quismundo and AP; with report from Matikas Santos, INQUIRER.net
Originally posted: 5:01 pm | Tuesday, March 11th, 2014