Marines reinforce disputed shoal
MANILA, Philippines—The Philippines has deployed a fresh batch of Marines and supplies to a disputed shoal in the South China Sea where a Chinese warship appeared last month, triggering a new standoff in the strategic waters.
Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin said on Wednesday the new contingent of Filipino marines replaced troops at the Ayungin Shoal, internationally known as the Second Thomas Shoal, where the arrival last month of Chinese ships sparked diplomatic protests from the Philippines.
Gazmin said that the shoal lies within the Philippines’ internationally recognized 200-nautical mile (370-kilometer) exclusive economic zone, or the West Philippine Sea.
China claims the shoal in the Spratly Islands Group as its own. Last year it also took control of another shoal in the Philippines’ maritime zone, (Scarborough or Panatag Shoal off Zambales), prompting Manila to seek United Nations arbitration.
The Filipino Marines at the Ayungin Shoal are stationed in a rusty military hospital ship, the BRP Sierra Madre, that the government ran aground in 1999 in what the Associated Press described as “an awkward symbol of Philippine sovereignty.”
The shoal is a shallow coral outcrop about 15-km long and 5-km wide.
Gazmin said he had discussed the fresh Philippine deployment with Chinese Ambassador Ma Keqing recently. Ma raised concerns that the Philippines was planning to erect concrete structures at the shoal to reinforce its territorial claim, but Gazmin said he had assured her there was no such plan.
Gazmin said that he discussed the issue with Ma to prevent a possible confrontation between Chinese and Filipino forces, but stressed that the Philippines was free to undertake any activity in the shoal without notifying China.
“It’s ours,” Gazmin said by telephone.
He said he has also discussed the tense situation at the shoal with visiting United States security officials, including Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus, at a Manila meeting on Tuesday.
“They’re really concerned and want to be sure that this will be resolved without use of force,” Gazmin said.
Armed Forces chief of staff Gen. Emmanuel Bautista later told local reporters the deployment was “a routinary activity.”
“We have rotated [our troops]. We do that rotation and we are resupplying them on a regular basis,” Bautista said.
Bautista said the Chinese ships were still in the area but the military did not encounter any blockade. “There was no interference,” he said.
Bautista said the military will be “nonconfrontational” in the territorial dispute with China and submits to the arbitration process undertaken by the Aquino administration to stave off China’s claims to Ayungin Shoal.
“We will be nonconfrontational. We do not want any conflict with our neighbors and we will continue to support the [international] arbitration,” he said. AP, Nikko Dizon