Fishermen on Pag-asa Island on Friday said they opposed a military plan to train them to become part of a reserve force in the face of Chinese aggression in the West Philippine Sea (WPS).
In an interview over radio dzBB, Larry Hugo, the president of the Pag-asa Island Fisherfolk Association which operates about 36 fishing boats, said they would prefer to simply report any untoward incident in the area.
“That would be difficult for us fishermen,” he said of the military plan in Filipino, adding that their group of 36 boats would not agree to carry firearms.
On Thursday, Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) chief Gen. Romeo Brawner Jr. said they are considering putting up a maritime militia in the West Philippine Sea to strengthen their presence in the area.
Brawner said the military is looking at Filipino fishermen to be part of the reserve forces.
He issued the statement after Chinese vessels used water cannons and engaged in dangerous maneuvers against Philippine boats on a resupply mission for troops manning the BRP Sierra Madre in Ayungin Shoal on Aug. 5.
A Philippine Navy officer who was on board the resupply vessel that was fired upon with water cannons said they received radio challenges from the Chinese ships.
At a press conference at the Western Command headquarters in Puerto Princesa City, Palawan, Lt. Ramsey Gutierrez said the supplies and goods that were supposed to be delivered to troops stationed at BRP Sierra Madre were destroyed because of the incident.
“The rice got wet. The other food provisions were hit by the water cannon, so they were destroyed—the vegetables and meat,” Gutierrez said.
The Navy officer also said they were boxed in by the Chinese ships, and their movement was heavily restricted.
He said there were two militia vessels on the starboard and port side and a Chinese Coast Guard vessel right behind them.
“There was no way for the boat to sail on the intended track,” Gutierrez said.
Only one vessel was able to resupply the Marines on the BRP Sierra Madre, he said.
Lt. Junior Grade Darwin Datwin, who was on one of the boats, said the Chinese ships tried to ram their vessel.
“Our boats going there are only at 24 meters. Made of wood. This is a civilian chartered boat. The distance between them [Chinese ships] is less than five meters to the starboard of the boat,” Datwin said.
The AFP said another resupply mission will be conducted soon because only half a month’s worth of food and water was successfully delivered to the military outpost in Ayungin Shoal.
AFP WESCOM chief Vice Admiral Alberto Carlos said he hoped the reception would be less aggressive, given the international attention now focused on Chinese actions in the area.
But former Supreme Court associate justice Antonio Carpio urged the government to do joint patrols with like-minded allies on the next resupply mission to the BRP Sierra Madre.
Carpio, who played a pivotal role in securing a legal victory for the Philippines against China before the Permanent Court of Arbitration in 2016, said the Philippines can follow the examples of Malaysia and Indonesia.
These countries continued their survey and naval drills in their exclusive economic zones in the South China Sea, together with the United States and Australia, despite warnings from the Chinese Coast Guard.
“We can have joint patrols with the US at the same time [in the next resupply mission to the Ayungin Shoal]. We can calibrate it. Remember, Malaysia and Indonesia were able to survey and drill despite warnings from the Chinese Coast Guard that the area falls within the nine-dash line…”
“They sent their Navy together with the survey ship and the drilling ship, and, at the same time, the US and Australia conducted naval drills in the same area, that’s for Malaysia. For Indonesia, the US aircraft carrier Ronald Reagan happened to pass by,” Carpio said.
“The Americans are there. They did the favor for the Malaysians and Indonesians without a defense treaty. And the Australians also did the same for Malaysia. Why are they doing this? Because they want to preserve freedom of navigation… We can do all these things. It’s up to us if we have the political will,” he added.
Carpio made the statement during a forum on Thursday organized by the Stratbase ADR Institute, in partnership with the United States Institute of Peace.
Government officials and local and foreign experts attended the forum and discussed various issues, including the current security environment in the West Philippines.
Carpio said Ayungin Shoal is one of the flash points in the Philippines-China relationship. “Ayungin Shoal is about 20 nautical miles from Mischief Reef.
The arbitral tribunal ruled that Mischief Reef is a low-tide feature forming part of the exclusive economic zone of the Philippines.
Despite this, China “illegally reclaimed Mischief Reef and converted it into the largest air and naval base of China in the Spratlys. Because of Ayungin Shoal’s proximity to Mischief Reef, China wants to seize Ayungin Shoal from the Philippines” Carpio said.
At the same forum, Stratbase President Dindo Manhit urged the government to maximize joint patrols and have like-minded allies shepherd Philippine vessels on their next resupply mission. He said this was not aimed at starting a war, but simply to let the country exercise its rights based on international law. “Our military facility is within our exclusive economic zone,” he said.
Former US Air Force official and security expert Raymond Powell said that one of the leverages the Philippines can use against dealing with an “extremely large and aggressive country like China” is its partnerships with like-minded allies. Powell, also a fellow at the Gordian Knot Center for National Security Innovation at Stanford University in the United States, said the Ayungin Shoal, including the BRP Sierra Madre, is the most vulnerable outpost in the entire South China Sea and needs to be reinforced.
“It’s vulnerable not just because of how few people are there and their inability to defend themselves but the fact that their outpost is deteriorating and will ultimately succumb to time and the weather and the elements.” “That will happen unless the Philippines, with its US allies, are able to come up with some other solution to repairing or replacing, somehow lifting, circumventing, and defeating the ongoing Chinese blockade,” Powell said.