Wescom wary: China’s next barriers may be at Ayungin
MANILA, Philippines — The commander of Palawan-based Western Command (Wescom) is worried about the possibility that China would place floating barriers in Ayungin (Second Thomas) Shoal as it did in Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal recently.
But Vice Adm. Alberto Carlos, Wescom chief, said they would readily remove those barriers even without the orders of President Ferdinand Marcos Jr.
The Philippine Coast Guard (PCG), upon the orders of the president, removed a 300-meter barrier set up by China last week to prevent Filipino fishermen from entering the lagoon of Panatag Shoal (also known as Bajo de Masinloc) off Zambales province, which it said was a “hazard to navigation and a clear violation of international law.”
Carlos said the PCG’s response to the incident could serve as a template for similar scenarios in the future.
“My concern is they might do the same in Ayungin. There’s already a template to follow in Scarborough. If they do that in Ayungin, we also have to remove the barriers and we do not have to wait for the order of the President to remove that,” he told reporters on Wednesday on the sidelines of a forum hosted by Stratbase ADRi on the West Philippine Sea.
Filipino fishermen have long been kept out of the shoal’s lagoon by China since a tense standoff in 2012 that prompted the Philippine government to file a case against Beijing before the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague.
The 2016 arbitration ruling classified the shoal as a traditional fishing ground that should be shared with neighboring countries, such as China and Vietnam. But Beijing, which claims nearly the entire South China Sea, rejected the ruling.
“I monitor the situation in Scarborough very closely because whatever happens there will happen also in Ayungin,” Carlos said.
The BRP Sierra Madre — a dilapidated grounded warship — serves as the Philippines’ military outpost in Ayungin, a low-tide elevation located 194 kilometers (105 nautical miles) off Palawan that is within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ).
Chinese coast guard and maritime militia vessels constantly harass Philippine ships carrying out resupply missions to the BRP Sierra Madre. Last month, it used water cannons to block supply boats heading to Ayungin, prompting only one of the two vessels to complete the mission.
In April last year, Chinese vessels placed buoys and fishing nets to block supply boats at Ayungin Shoal’s entrance. But at the time, the Chinese ships directed the boats to use another entry point of the shoal and they were able to carry out their mission.
Carlos, who oversees Philippine claims in the Kalayaan Island Group, said they would be ready to remove any blockade that would be set up by the Chinese anywhere within his jurisdiction.
Keep fishers in shoal
The PCG, meanwhile, urged Filipino fishermen to continue their fishing trips to Panatag and other areas in the West Philippine Sea, pledging to step up patrols despite an imposing Chinese presence.
Philippine vessels were unable to maintain a constant presence but were committed to protecting the rights of fishermen inside the country’s EEZ, PCG spokesperson Commodore Jay Tarriela said.
“We’re going to increase patrols in Bajo de Masinloc and other areas where Filipino fishermen are,” he told dzRH radio.
In Zambales, some fishermen in Subic town returned home on Wednesday following another ordeal in the hands of the patrolling China Coast Guard in Panatag.
In an interview with the Inquirer, fisherman Arnel Satam said a rubber boat sent out by the Chinese chased and bumped their outrigger boat as they tried to approach the lagoon of the maritime territory on Sept. 15, or three days after their arrival.
“The moment we reached the waters near the shoal, we’ve already prevented by four Chinese vessels from getting close to it,” said Satam, who was among the 13 boat crew who were driven away by the Chinese recently.
Another fisherman, Paulo Pumicpic, 44, said the barrier put up by Chinese vessels in the area had put them in peril since it hindered navigation in the area.
“Those barriers were too dangerous for us because our boat can get entangled with the ropes and can cause our boat to capsize,” Pumicpic said.
But both fishermen said they were still planning to return to the shoal since there was nothing to catch from “payao,” or artificial reefs, in the municipal waters.
A crew of 10 to 13 fishermen usually spend P150,000 for a two-week fishing trip to the shoal, hoping to earn between P42,000 and P50,000 if they could stay unhampered while roaming around their traditional fishing ground.
At the Senate, Defense Secretary Gilberto Teodoro Jr. on Wednesday disputed claims of a Chinese official that the Philippines has been provoking the escalation of tension in the West Philippine Sea.
At the Senate budget briefing for the Department of Defense (DND), Teodoro maintained that the Philippines was merely reacting to the acts of provocation that were repeatedly started by China.
“We are not provoking China; what we are doing is merely reacting to what they always initiate,” he said.
Teodoro made the assertion as he and other DND officials, as well as the officers of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, presented to senators the agency’s proposed 2024 budget amounting to P229.9 billion.
He was responding to a query by Sen. Robinhood Padilla, quoting media reports on the statements made by foreign ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin, warning the Philippine government against possible acts of provocation in the West Philippine Sea.
“China firmly upholds the sovereignty and maritime rights of Huangyan Island and we advise the Philippines side not to provoke and cause trouble,” said Wang, referring to the Panatag Shoal using its Chinese name.
“China is the one provoking with the blocking of the routes of our fishermen. I was told that after the barriers were cut off, our fishers reported a substantial increase in their catch,” he said.
Teodoro said that the DND was adopting a shift in mindset in dealing with China, following its series of supposed provocations on the Philippines’ territorial waters.
“We are now adopting a mindset that we should no longer allow ourselves to be provoked, but to be constantly prepared to respond in such a way that they cannot provoke us because that is ours,” he said.
Teodoro clarified that the Philippines remained open to diplomatic talks with China over issues surrounding the West Philippine Sea, but this should be based on “principled negotiations [that are] open and transparent.”
Updating WPS strategy
According to Wescom chief Carlos, the government is updating its strategy on the West Philippine Sea which calls for “stronger assertion of rights.”
The improved strategy will be aligned with the government’s overall national security strategy and will be more “attuned to the situation on the ground,” he said, but declining to offer specific details.
“It’s a regular process. It’s a normal process for us to tweak, to fine-tune whatever strategy that we are using there to better address the issues on the ground,” Carlos added.