Arroyo: I never promised to remove BRP Sierra Madre
MANILA, Philippines — Former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo on Saturday said that she did not commit to remove the BRP Sierra Madre from Ayungin (Second Thomas) Shoal where it was deliberately grounded by her predecessor to serve as one of the country’s outposts in the West Philippine Sea.
“I will categorically state three facts. First, I never made such a promise to China or any other country. Second, I never authorized any of my government officials to make such a promise,” Arroyo said in a statement.
Thirdly, she said that she became aware of Beijing’s claim only “when the matter surfaced in public discussions.”
“Beyond this, I will not make any further comment, in order to allow our foreign affairs officials to deal with it with a minimum of distraction,” said Arroyo, a representative of Pampanga who now serves as House deputy speaker.
Response to strong protests
In response to strong protests from the Philippines and its allies against the China Coast Guard (CCG) water cannon attack on Aug. 5 on a Philippine Navy supply boat heading to the Sierra Madre, China again brought up the supposed 24-year-old promise to tow the ship away after it was run aground on Ayungin in 1999 by the Philippine Navy. Then Defense Secretary Orly Mercado said the grounding was authorized by President Joseph Estrada.
Estrada served barely half his term as he was driven out of Malacañang by the so-called Edsa People Power 2 revolt. Arroyo, his vice president, completed his term and then won the 2004 presidential election to serve a total of nine years as president.
Arroyo made the statement on Saturday night in response to reporters’ requests for comment on Beijing’s claim.
Estrada’s sons, Sen. Jinggoy Estrada and Sen. JV Ejercito, said their father did not make such a promise.
President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. said on Aug. 9 that he was not aware of “any such arrangement or agreement that the Philippines will remove from its own territory its own ship,” adding that he was rescinding it if it did exist.
The Armed Forces of the Philippines said that it was committed to maintaining its hold on Ayungin, and warned Chinese authorities to “behave” or they would bear the consequences of another move to block supplies for troops stationed on the Sierra Madre.
AFP spokesperson Col. Medel Aguilar said the military would “soon” launch another rotation and resupply (RoRe) mission after the Aug. 5 water cannon assault by a CCG vessel on one of two supply boats headed to Ayungin. A second boat made it to the Sierra Madre with half of the supplies intended.
“They should not do any action that will endanger people’s lives,” Aguilar said during a news forum on Saturday. “For all the consequences of this singular act will cause, the blame will be on them and the authorities above them. So, they should behave.”
He warned China that the world would be watching the next RoRe mission. “So, let the people know what is being done offensively, the offensive actions, unlawful actions that the China Coast Guard is doing,” Aguilar said.
The Sierra Madre, a World War II-era landing ship tank now rusted and derelict after it was run aground on May 9, 1999, also serves as a symbol of Philippine sovereignty over that part of the West Philippine Sea.
CCG ships, backed by Chinese maritime militia boats and occasionally People’s Liberation Army Navy vessels, maintain a constant presence as a cordon around the shoal, a low-tide feature that the 2016 arbitral tribunal ruling said was part of the Philippines’ 370-kilometer exclusive economic zone.
China rejected the arbitral award and maintained its sweeping claim to nearly the entire South China Sea.
Aguilar said that the AFP was “duty-bound to ensure the well-being” of its personnel on the Sierra Madre and committed “to maintain our presence” at Ayungin.
“This exercise of our sovereign rights and jurisdiction is a testament to our firm belief in the rules-based international order that underpins regional peace and stability,” he added.
Despite the aggressive acts by the Chinese, Aguilar said the AFP would continue to support the peaceful settlement of disputes.“We, therefore, call on all relevant parties to abide by their obligations under international law and respect the Philippines’ sovereignty, sovereign rights and jurisdiction over its maritime zones,” he added.
A traditional Filipino fishing ground, Ayungin is part of the Kalayaan Island Group about 200 km northwest of Palawan’s Rizal town and is part of the province’s Kalayaan municipality.
In addition to bringing up the alleged Philippine promise to remove the Sierra Madre, Chinese or pro-Chinese groups also were trying to smear Filipino diplomats, particularly the Philippine Ambassador to the United States Jose Manuel Romualdez, in a bid to strain Manila’s relations with Washington, according to the envoy.
A Makabayan lawmaker on Saturday called on the House leadership to tap global parliamentary networks to condemn Beijing’s actions, especially against Philippine vessels.
In a statement, House Deputy Minority Leader Rep. France Castro, urged Speaker Martin Romualdez, a cousin of the ambassador, to “utilize the international parliamentary networks to condemn China’s aggression.”
“It will not be difficult to get the support of parliaments and their individual members because our exercise of sovereignty is based on international conventions and practices,” she said.
Castro said the Philippines can also use its position as a member of the Asian Parliamentary Association and the Inter-Parliamentary Union to get international support against China’s aggression in the West Philippine Sea and its attacks against Filipino vessels.
“We may not win through military might, but certainly we are strong in the legal, moral, and diplomatic arenas,” she added.
Bayan Muna chair and former Rep. Neri Colmenares said smear campaigns were part of China’s tactics.
The aim is to ensure that countries around the world “won’t have a common stand if a joint resolution in the United Nations General Assembly is filed against China’s aggressive actions,” he said.
“The move to file a joint resolution in the UN General Assembly is now getting traction and China wants to preempt this,” Colmenares said.
Sen. Francis Tolentino said the government should focus on pushing through with the next resupply mission to Ayungin.
He expressed doubts about the effectiveness of holding joint patrols with the Philippines’ allies in thwarting China’s attempts to block such missions.
“Let us not forget that joint patrols are time-bound and do not last for at least a year, while our resupply missions are year-round,” he said in a radio interview. “We can coincide the resupply missions with the joint patrols, but we cannot expect these to last for as long as we want them to.”