Sierra Madre repairs made despite Duterte deal

Sierra Madre repairs made despite Duterte deal

/ 05:55 AM April 15, 2024

‘WE WILLMAINTAIN THE SHIP’ Members of the Philippine Navy aboard wooden boat UnaizahMay 2 deliver supplies to troops posted at grounded vessel BRP SierraMadre in this photo taken June 21, 2022. This was the last resupply mission under the administration of then President Rodrigo Duterte. —MARIANNE BERMUDEZ

“WE WILL MAINTAIN THE SHIP” Members of the Philippine Navy aboard wooden boat Unaizah May 2 deliver supplies to troops posted at grounded vessel BRP SierraMadre in this photo taken June 21, 2022. This was the last resupply mission under the administration of then President Rodrigo Duterte. MARIANNE BERMUDEZ

MANILA, Philippines — Former President Rodrigo Duterte may have claimed to have entered into a “gentleman’s agreement” with China not to reinforce the military outpost at Ayungin (Second Thomas) Shoal to keep the status quo in the West Philippine Sea, but the deal was contrary to what was happening on the ground, as his top security officials had asserted at that time.

A now rust-filled World War II-era landing ship tank, the BRP Sierra Madre plays a crucial role in preserving the country’s claims in those waters. The ship was intentionally grounded there by the Philippine Navy in 1999 after China seized Panganiban (Mischief) Reef in 1995 and transformed it from a fishermen’s shelter into a massive military outpost.


READ: Marcos ‘horrified’ by idea of ‘agreement’ between China, PH on WPS



Last week, Duterte admitted that he entered into an informal agreement with China not to bring construction materials to Ayungin and other Philippine outposts in the West Philippine Sea to prevent tensions from escalating further, confirming what his former spokesperson Harry Roque had revealed last month. The deal did not cover the removal of the BRP Sierra Madre, he added.

The Chinese Embassy in Manila has said the Philippines “repeatedly broke its promise and went back on its word” by sending construction materials to the BRP Sierra Madre and insisted that there was a promise to tow the ship.

READ: China insists ‘gentleman’s agreement’ under Duterte administration

Asked about Roque’s statements on the supposed agreement, Duterte’s former Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana told the Inquirer on March 27: “I am not aware of that agreement.” He did not respond to follow-up questions.

In late June 2022, the Inquirer joined a rotation and resupply mission—the last under the Duterte administration—on the BRP Sierra Madre and seven other Philippine outposts in the Kalayaan Island Group. The Inquirer was the only media granted access to the grounded vessel during Duterte’s term.

At the time, the Navy-manned wooden boat Unaizah May 2, where the Inquirer was embedded, carried construction materials such as angle bars, welding electrodes and deck plates, aside from the food supplies.


Aboard the BRP Sierra Madre—where a handful of sailors were stationed on a rotation basis to stake the country’s claim in that area—were signs of repair to keep the ship from falling apart.

While the two 24-meter supply boats used for that particular mission to BRP Sierra Madre successfully delivered the supplies, Chinese coast guard ships tried to interfere by tailing the two boats and its escorting ships from the Philippine Coast Guard, and warned them of “consequences” in bringing construction materials.

A senior military official told the Inquirer at the time that the China Coast Guard could have made the warning after seeing from afar that “various hull maintenance materials” were among the supplies offloaded.

20 years

“That is a commissioned ship. We have been resupplying that detachment for the past 20 years. Our personnel need to repair the living quarters, so you cannot prevent us from repairing that,” Lorenzana said in his final press conference on June 28, 2022, a week after the resupply mission in Ayungin.

“We will improve the quarters of our troops. We will maintain the ship because it hasn’t been decommissioned yet. It is still part of the Philippine Navy,” he said.

In November 2021, a few days after Chinese coast guard ships blocked and blasted water cannon at Philippine supply boats en route to the BRP Sierra Madre, then National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon Jr. said they were looking at putting up structures at Ayungin “to preserve it so that it remains ours,” asserting that the Philippines could do whatever it wanted because it was within its waters.

Based on the 2016 arbitral tribunal ruling, China’s excessive claims in almost the entire South China Sea has no basis in international law. Ayungin, located some 194 kilometers (105 nautical miles) off Palawan province, is a submerged feature that forms part of the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone, giving it an entitlement to sovereign rights.

Beijing has never acknowledged the ruling.

Pag-asa runway rehab

China has been trying for years to prevent the Navy’s resupply missions but over the past several months, it has displayed new tactics and the shoal has seen tense encounters between Philippine and Chinese ships.

In the last resupply mission on March 23, three Filipino sailors were injured after the Chinese used water cannons at their supply boat and caused heavy damage to the vessel.

China, too, tried to object to the development of Pag-asa (Thitu) Island during the term of Duterte, but the Philippine government still continued with major upgrades. The 1.3-km runway was rehabilitated and a beaching ramp was built during the previous administration under China’s unrelenting gaze.

More details sought

On Sunday, lawmakers from both houses of Congress sought clarification and other details on the alleged secret deal that Duterte had with China.

Senate Minority Leader Aquilino Pimentel III urged President Marcos and Duterte to sit down and discuss once and for all the latter’s agreement with China, even as he said the country should craft a clear policy that would discourage government leaders from engaging in “verbal, unrecorded and informal agreements” with other nations.

“There is nothing wrong with it,” Pimentel said in an interview with radio dzBB when asked if he thought it would be a good idea for Mr. Marcos and his predecessor to engage in a dialogue over the issue.

He noted that the National Security Council already has an existing mechanism for the incumbent President to invite his predecessors for consultation and discussion on pressing issues confronting the country.

Several members of the House of Representatives on Sunday also sought a full public disclosure of President Duterte’s supposed agreement with Beijing, calling for a congressional probe to scrutinize its details.

Full disclosure

House Deputy Majority Leader and Tingog party list Rep. Jude Acidre maintained that the previous administration was obligated to make a full disclosure of the secret deal, particularly when it involved foreign policy and national security, stressing that such had no place in a democratic country.

In an interview on dzBB’s “Bantay Balita sa Kongreso,” Acidre said that while Duterte’s supposed deal with China would not be binding on the Philippines, it was important for the current administration and the people to be informed of the details of the agreement.

For her part, House Deputy Minority Leader and ACT Teachers Rep. France Castro said it was “imperative” for Congress to look into Duterte’s deal with China and open an inquiry on the matter.

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Castro urged the House leadership to schedule a probe which she has sought as early as last year through House Resolution No. 1216. —WITH REPORTS FROM TINA G. SANTOS AND JEANNETTE I. ANDRADE

TAGS: Ayungin Shoal, BRP Sierra Madre, Philippine Navy

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