Ayungin mission: Tension, tedium – and a ‘kakampi’
ABOARD THE BRP CABRA, West Philippine Sea — Outnumbered, Philippine vessels were once again blocked and harassed by Chinese ships as they tried to bring fresh supplies to a grounded warship that serves as a military outpost at Ayungin (Second Thomas) Shoal to bolster the country’s territorial claims in the West Philippine Sea.
Friday’s situation in the area, as witnessed by the Inquirer and other journalists whom the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) invited to go on the trip, saw up-close how the Chinese aggressively tried to impose their will in waters that are, under international law, well within Philippine jurisdiction. It was also a glimpse into how a much smaller nation, backed by a legal and historical basis for its actions, could continue to push back.
At one point, a China Coast Guard (CCG) vessel steamed directly at the port side of the BRP Cabra (MRRV-4409) — one of the two vessels from the PCG tasked to escort the two supply boats sent by the Philippine Navy — as if to ram its rear but stopped short at less than 6 meters. The Filipinos issued defiant responses to the radio challenges from the Chinese but struggled with the intense efforts by China’s vessels to interfere with the resupply mission.
The two wooden boats eventually reached the BRP Sierra Madre to bring the fresh provisions, while the two escort vessels were blocked by Chinese ships from getting closer to the shoal.
First stop: Escoda Shoal
For the resupply mission, two 24-meter supply boats Unaizah May (UM 1 and UM 2) used by the Philippine Navy and two 44-meter Japanese-built patrol ships of the PCG — BRP Sindangan (MRRV-4407) and BRP Cabra — set sail by pairs from separate ports in Palawan on Thursday morning.
The Philippine boats linked up in the vicinity of Escoda (Sabina) Shoal, some 67 kilometers east of Ayungin, later that night.
“The role of the Philippine Coast Guard during resupply missions is to provide security escort and to ensure that the indigenous boats will reach the BRP Sierra Madre,” BRP Cabra’s commanding officer Commander Emmanuel Dangate said, referring to the decrepit World War II-era warship grounded by the Philippines in 1999 to stake its claim of sovereignty in that area.
Journalists sat out the uneventful hours, chatting and playing out imagined scenarios for the next day’s mission. Some had bouts of seasickness.
The PCG vessels, which have a top speed of 26 knots (46.3 kilometers per hour), had to sail at 5 knots (9.26 kph), to adjust to the slower speed of the small wooden boats they were escorting.
Friday morning at the BRP Cabra’s bridge — or pilothouse, where the ship is navigated — started quietly, but this calm did not last long.
As the Philippine vessels reached close to around 52 kilometers from the shoal shortly before 6 a.m., a CCG ship with bow number 21616 appeared and stayed as close as around 730 meters, then circled the BRP Cabra. It was the first of four CCG vessels encountered during the mission.
Chinese ships sighted
A voice crackled on the radio through Channel 16: “Philippine vessel, this is China Coast Guard 21616 …. To avoid miscalculation and misunderstanding, please inform us of your intention, over.”
A female voice from one of the PCG patrol ships replied: “This is Philippine Coast Guard vessel BRP Sindangan MRRV 4407 conducting lawful routine maritime operations within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone. In accordance with international and Philippine laws, we are proceeding according to our planned route. Request to stay clear from our passage in accordance with the collision regulation, over.”
Moments later, a People’s Liberation Army Navy corvette CNS ABA (630) was sighted by lookouts some 5 nautical miles from the BRP Cabra. It did not have its ship tracker activated and could not be spotted from the radar screen. The 1,500-ton Chinese Navy ship with a length of 90 meters is a Jiangdao Type 056 corvette equipped with naval guns, short-range anti-air missiles, anti-ship missiles, and torpedo launchers. It did not issue a radio challenge, but it stayed during the entire mission.
By 7 a.m., more tiny dots appeared on the horizon that would later emerge as three more CCG vessels and four Chinese maritime militia ships.
‘US Navy aircraft’
The bridge turned busy and noisy as lookouts with binoculars attentively scanned the horizon at the observation deck and blurted out the contacts sighted.
The radar operator blared the updated status of the distances and speed of identified ships, while the engine officer and helmsman were steering the ship according to the directions of the officer on watch, ensuring the ship maintained its course.
Radio challenges were exchanged by both sides to assert each other’s territorial claims.
Then a plane on a low-level flight started to circle above as the Philippine ships were some 19 nautical miles from the shoal. “Kakampi ’yan [That’s an ally]!” one of the sailors at the bridge exclaimed, without saying where it was from.
“It was there last time,” the sailor said, referring to the resupply mission on Aug. 22.
The plane would identify itself over the radio after an hour of circling overhead.
“This is a US Navy aircraft in the vicinity of Second Thomas Shoal observing all activities between Filipino and PRC [People’s Republic of China] coast guard vessels to include … any unsafe or unprofessional actions. US Navy aircraft out.”
Still, the Chinese ships turned more aggressive as the Philippine vessels approached the shoal.
CCG 5305, a 134-meter ship much larger than any of the vessels operated by the PCG or Philippine Navy, later said over the radio that “in the spirit of humanism,” it would allow the passage of supply boats carrying food, necessary supplies, and rotating personnel.
“No other ship will be permitted to enter …. Otherwise, you will bear full responsibility and bear consequences,” the voice said. Much smaller CCG vessels with bow numbers 21616, 21551, and 21556 and the maritime militia actively blocked and shadowed the PCG ships.
Before 10 a.m. and with still 10 nautical miles away from the shoal, there was little room for the BRP Cabra to maneuver. The BRP Sindangan was also boxed out a few moments later.
The CCG ships that maneuvered so close to the PCG vessels were so near that their crew could be seen taking photos.
The two supply boats were able to bring supplies to the BRP Sierra Madre but without their PCG escorts.
Commodore Jay Tarriela, the PCG spokesperson for the West Philippine Sea, said China was successful in blocking the two PCG ships from coming closer to the shoal because of its new strategy of deploying small CCG vessels.
“They are deploying smaller Chinese coast guard vessels with more capability to maneuver. The Chinese maritime militia are now no longer hesitating to participate in the blocking operation of the Chinese coast guard,” he said. While the National Task Force for the West Philippine Sea said the mission was successful, it also noted that “China Coast Guard and Chinese Maritime Militia” vessels had carried out “harassment, dangerous maneuvers and aggressive conduct” toward the Philippine boats.
“The task force strongly deplores and condemns [their] continued illegal, aggressive, and destabilizing conduct,” it said.
Around 3 p.m. that Friday, the two UM boats returned to where PCG vessels were corralled by Chinese ships.
They sailed back together with the Chinese vessels shadowing them up until Escoda Shoal, this time with leniency because they were heading home.
Chinese Navy ship Shenzhen (167), a 155-meter Type 051B destroyer, was seen near this shoal.
Right after sunset, a US Navy plane was spotted one more time by journalists at the BRP Cabra, flashing its navigational lights before it disappeared from the horizon.