Senior Navy official makes rare trip to Ayungin post
MANILA, Philippines — One of the highest-ranking Philippine Navy officials made a rare trip to a lonely outpost in the West Philippine Sea ahead of Independence Day to pay tribute to the troops who serve at the front lines under China’s constant watchful eye.
Vice Adm. Alberto Carlos, commander of the Palawan-based Western Command in charge of protecting the Philippines’ interests in the Kalayaan Island Group (KIG) in the West Philippine Sea, joined a rotation and resupply mission on June 9 at the war-vintage BRP Sierra Madre in Ayungin (Second Thomas) Shoal — the highest-ranking military official to pay a visit in recent years—where he saw firsthand the living conditions of the troops battling isolation in what could be the country’s most vulnerable military outpost.
Riddled with holes and rust, the BRP Sierra Madre is a World War II landing ship tank deliberately grounded on the shallow reef in 1999 to assert the country’s sovereignty in the West Philippine Sea, part of the South China Sea within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ).
“There is an incredible determination and sense of patriotism that resides in every military personnel stationed at the Ayungin outpost,” Carlos told the Inquirer on Sunday.
Ayungin is a low-tide elevation about 194 kilometers off Palawan province, well within the Philippines’ EEZ. It is about 37 km northwest of Panganiban (Mischief) Reef, also within the country’s EEZ that was seized by China from the Philippines in 1995 and has since been transformed into a massive military outpost capable of launching missiles.
On Monday, all the nine Philippine-occupied detachments in the KIG, including the BRP Sierra Madre, will raise the national flag in celebration of the country’s 125th Independence Day, a time when Filipino troops from the past and present are honored for their sacrifices to defend the country.
Carlos said he would be on Pag-asa (Thitu) Island, the biggest of the nine outposts and the only one with a civilian community, for a flag-raising ceremony.
In Manila, the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) will showcase its “modern firepower and assets” in a marquee parade at the Quirino Grandstand “as a show of enhanced territorial defense capability by the military,” according to AFP public affairs chief Lt. Col. Enrico Gil Ileto.
China claims the entire South China Sea, including portions of the West Philippine Sea, while the Philippines, Brunei, Vietnam, Taiwan, and Malaysia have overlapping claims.
In a landmark 2016 ruling, the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, the Netherlands, rejected Beijing’s massive “nine-dash-line” claims in the sea, but China has refused to recognize this.
It was a first-time experience for Carlos — who spent his junior years as a naval aviator — or any flag-rank officer, to join one of the two 24-meter wooden boats used by the Navy during monthly resupply missions for a nearly 30-hour journey to the BRP Sierra Madre. They were escorted by two Philippine Coast Guard vessels.
Chinese ships loiter near the shoal most of the time and often block Filipino vessels delivering food and other supplies.
Last week’s resupply mission was uneventful, although a China Coast Guard ship and at least four militia vessels were at the shoal entrance, according to vessel-tracking data shared by Ray Powell of Stanford University’s Project Myoushu on the South China Sea.
Carlos stayed at the BRP Sierra Madre for almost four hours, where he had a chance to inspect the ship, speak to the troops and enjoy a boodle fight meal.
“They definitely deserve better with all their sacrifices. The challenge is on me on how I can deliver to make their lives better,” the senior Navy official said, as he vowed to continue to work on improving the troops’ living conditions in a station that has become the country’s symbol of sovereignty and resistance to China’s expansive claims in the West Philippine Sea.
Carlos said his visit to Ayungin was an expression of solidarity with the troops who are facing challenging conditions in a far-flung area.
“As a commander, it’s a part of my job to visit them. In any military unit, especially somewhere very remote, seeing your commander would boost the morale of the troops. It’s giving them hope you could turn things better for them because you’ve seen and experienced — even just for a few hours — what they endure,” he pointed out.