China’s Coast Guard is guarding Ayungin Shoal, on the map a tiny rectangle to the left of Palawan in the West Philippine Sea, likely to evade the eye if one weren’t particularly looking for it. Not many Filipinos are aware of the “low-tide elevation” well within their country’s exclusive economic zone, with a war-vintage ship, the BRP Sierra Madre, gradually crumbling in its shallows. In the public imagination, it’s not on par with, for example, the possible crumbling of the BTS alliance.
The very idea of the rusting 100-meter vessel aground on Ayungin hovers in the mind, providing grist to tales of young men and the sea and of the deep reserves of strength necessary to cope with profound isolation. But the story of Ayungin and the Sierra Madre is not only existential drama: It’s also China’s continuing test of the Philippines’ resolve to keep the shoal, in the formulation of the maritime expert Jay Batongbacal.
The Sierra Madre, a hand-me-down from the United States, was run aground on Ayungin in 1999, to serve as a military outpost on the shoal that lies 194 kilometers (or 105 nautical miles) off Palawan, and that the Philippines claims as its territory according to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. Marines are stationed on the ship on a rotation basis and are supplied food and other resources through naval missions that, from reports, have become increasingly difficult and fraught with peril.
War of attrition
Frances Mangosing’s eyewitness account in the Inquirer last June 24 of the actions of China’s Coast Guard portrays how the seeming war of attrition is being waged.
Per her report based on what she observed on board the ML Unaizah May 2, China’s Coast Guard is a constant presence in the vicinity of Ayungin, which it claims to be the jurisdiction of the People’s Republic of China. It is averting rotation and resupply missions to Philippine troops on the Sierra Madre, especially if those missions are carrying construction materials for repair work on the ship’s many corroded parts.
Only weeks before Mangosing’s report, the Department of Foreign Affairs filed a diplomatic protest over “recent incidents” at Ayungin, including China’s deployment of its Coast Guard and militia ships to block Philippine rotation and resupply missions. That diplomatic protest and similar others, as well as summonses to the Chinese envoy, have apparently been of no effect, along with the protestations supposedly lodged as regularly as the DFA can be stirred to do so.
‘For every intrusion’
Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. has claimed that a protest has been filed “for every intrusion.” He also declared straight-faced that the Duterte administration had done nothing to weaken the Philippines’ position in the West Philippine Sea—surely an attempt at erasure on President Duterte’s public assertion, made more than once, that the Philippines’ 2016 victory in the arbitral court in The Hague was as worthless as a piece of paper fit for the garbage bin. That arbitral ruling, among others, rejects China’s claim over almost the entire South China Sea, and upholds the Philippines’ sovereign rights over its exclusive economic zone.
Yet for all that, and for everything that the Sierra Madre represents, Ayungin is boxed in, with China’s Coast Guard insisting on leading approaching Philippine vessels to what it deems an appropriate entrance to the shoal. For good measure, China has reportedly installed fishing nets and buoys in the waters as blocking devices for Philippine ships.
It’s part of China’s “very aggressive” presence, as National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon Jr. put it as early as November 2021, when he announced that two Chinese ships had blocked two Philippine boats on a resupply mission to Ayungin. Another Chinese ship trained a water cannon on the Philippine boats for a full hour, reported Esperon, the chair of the National Task Force for the West Philippine Sea.
The result of that startling muscle operation: The Philippine boats had to retreat, thus aborting the resupply mission.
In Mangosing’s account, the mission was a success, with the ML Unaizah May 2 and the ML Unaizah May 3 maneuvering to get to the Sierra Madre through the feints of China’s Coast Guard, under its unrelenting gaze, in full view of the cheering Philippine Marines.
For how long will this “game” of cat and mouse go on, and where will it lead?
Imagine Ayungin, on the map a tiny rectangle to the left of Palawan, and, in Batongbacal’s assessment, the “most vulnerable” in the Philippines’ Kalayaan Island Group. The shoal is named after the fresh-water fish endemic to the Philippines, quite small but tasty, well-known to families living within a tight budget. (“Paksiw na Ayungin” by the poet Jose F. Lacaba informs the reader of the fish’s value, and a lot more besides.)
Ayungin leads to Reed Bank, which is said to sit on vast reserves of oil and natural gas, and is about 37 kilometers from Panganiban Reef aka Mischief Reef, which, over protests from the Philippines, China occupied in 1995. Also within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone, Panganiban is now an artificial island with the requisite airstrip and hangars for a forward base. The construction started with small structures that China built supposedly to serve as shelter for passing Chinese fishermen.
China’s presence in Philippine waters and the shoals and reefs therein has been going on unbeknownst to many Filipinos for years, for decades even. In the process, it has also gotten away with poaching Philippine marine resources, such as corals and giant clams.
Late last year, Philippine officials complained of numerous Chinese vessels in the waters off Pag-asa Island, the largest in the Kalayaan Island Group which is inhabited by civilian families. Yet even earlier, in 2020, more than 100 Chinese vessels were seen — swarms of what looked like fishing boats that came and stayed, leaving and returning at certain points. The Department of National Defense suspected the swarming as a military strategy aimed at exercising control over Philippine waters.
Of course, it’s a test of will. What will this stolid, menacing presence ultimately mean under the new administration?