OPERATIONS in the West Philippine Sea (WPS) will continue despite increasing harassment from China Coast Guard (CCG) vessels and their maritime militia, the chief of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) Western Command said Thursday.

“Our operations in the WPS will continue, along with our patrols and along with the exercise of our sovereignty, sovereign rights and jurisdiction,” Vice Admiral Alberto Carlos said in Filipino, saying that the troops were “undeterred” and would not yield

Vice Admiral Alberto Carlos, Armed Forces of the Philippines, Westerm Command Chief, speaks during an interview with the media at a port in Palawan on March 6, 2024. The Philippines said on March 5 that China Coast Guard vessels caused two collisions with Philippine boats and water cannoned one of them, leaving four crew injured during a resupply mission in the South China Sea.
Vice Admiral Alberto Carlos, Armed Forces of the Philippines, Westerm Command Chief, speaks during an interview with the media at a port in Palawan on March 6, 2024. The Philippines said on March 5 that China Coast Guard vessels caused two collisions with Philippine boats and water cannoned one of them, leaving four crew injured during a resupply mission in the South China Sea. JAM STA ROSA / AFP



The BRP Sierra Madre, deliberately grounded in Ayungin to serve as a Philippine outpost, is watching over the shoal and will remain where it is, Carlos said in an interview over radio DZBB.

“We will do everything we can to ensure that the BRP Sierra Madre, which is the symbol of our sovereignty, stays there, and to comply with the President’s order, we will ensure that the [rotation and resupply] for the BRP Sierra Madre is continuous,” he said.

The statement followed the March 5 incident off Ayungin Shoal where a series of dangerous maneuvers and the use of water cannon of the CCG led to a minor collision and injuries among the resupply team, including Carlos himself who sustained cuts when the glass windows of Unaiza May 4 were shattered.

The Philippines will not allow China to remove its outpost in Ayungin Shoal, Carlos said.

Philippine officials summoned a Chinese Embassy diplomat in Manila to convey a strong protest over the confrontation Tuesday off Ayungin Shoal.

Washington issued a warning after Tuesday’s hostilities that it is obligated to defend the Philippines, its oldest treaty ally in Asia, if Filipino forces, ships or aircraft come under an armed attack anywhere in the South China Sea.

Philippine Navy Commodore Roy Trinidad also said Filipino forces will not allow any structure to be erected in another hotly contested South China Sea area, Scarborough Shoal. China surrounded the vast fishing atoll northwest of the Philippines with coast guard and suspected militia ships in 2012 after a tense standoff between Chinese and Philippine ships.

“These are red lines for the Philippines, to the armed forces,” Trinidad said at a news conference when asked what Chinese actions would be unacceptable to the Philippines in the disputed waters.

Trinidad said the administration of former president Rodrigo Duterte, who preceded current President Ferdinand Marcos Jr., established those “red lines,” which delineate actions by China and any other rival claimant state that would spark fierce Philippine resistance in the disputed sea.

The latest flareup in the long-simmering disputes began when CCG and suspected militia ships shadowed, surrounded and blocked two Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) ships which were escorting two civilian motorboats manned by Filipino navy personnel.

They were on the way to deliver supplies and replacement navy and marine personnel to the BRP Sierra Madre, a navy warship that was deliberately grounded by the Philippine military in the late 1990s in the shallows of Ayungin Shoal to serve as a territorial outpost.

China also claims the area and has surrounded the shoal with coast guard, navy and suspected militia ships to prevent Filipino forces from delivering construction materials to reinforce the Sierra Madre, which is encrusted with rust and slightly tilting but remains an actively commissioned navy ship, meaning any attack on it would be considered by Manila as an act of war.

After dawn on Tuesday, a CCG vessel sideswiped one of the PCG ships, the BRP Sindangan, where crewmen scrambled to lower rubber fenders along the side to avoid damage to the hull. Two Associated Press journalists and other media who were invited to travel on the patrol ship witnessed the tense confrontation.

Inviting journalists to join trips by Philippine ships to the area is part of a strategy adopted last year by the government to publicize China’s aggressive actions in one of the world’s most hotly contested waterways.

China has reacted by providing its coast guard personnel with video cameras to contest Manila’s version of the confrontations.

The CCG said in its account of the incident that the BRP Sindangan had rammed its ship, although the journalists aboard the PCG vessel saw the Chinese ship approach dangerously close before the collision.

Later, another CCG ship blocked and then collided with a supply boat being escorted by the PCG, Filipino officials said.

The supply boat was later hit by water cannon blasts from two CCG ships. Carlos was aboard the boat and witnessed the water cannon assault, which he said caused minor injuries to four navy personnel.

“The pressure was really intense,” Carlos said. “It shattered the windshield of the boat and caused some injuries.”

The damaged boat immediately returned to Palawan. The other supply boat managed to evade the CCG blockade and delivered supplies to the Filipino forces guarding the shoal, Philippine officials said.

The two-decade-long territorial standoff sparked a series of confrontations between Chinese and Filipino forces last year, with the Philippines protesting dangerous maneuvers by CCG vessels and China demanding that the Sierra Madre be towed away by the Philippines.

The CCG said in a statement that “it took control measures in accordance with the law against Philippine ships that illegally intruded into the waters adjacent to Ren’ai Reef,” the name Beijing uses for Second Thomas Shoal.

Washington condemned the CCG actions, and its ambassador in Manila, MaryKay Carlson, said the US stands with the Philippines. Australia and Japan separately expressed their concern over China’s actions.

In Washington, US State Department spokesman Matthew Miller said the incidents demonstrated China’s “reckless disregard for the safety of Filipinos and also for international law,” and that China was interfering with lawful Philippine maritime operations. The confrontations have sparked fears of a larger conflict that could involve the United States.

But China urged the Philippines to “refrain from allowing itself to be manipulated by the US” and warned that “a pawn will only end up being abandoned.”

China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Mao Ning issued the statement following the latest encounter between PCG ships and Chinese vessels in the WPS. Four Filipino crew members were injured and their ship was damaged by water cannons from one of the Chinese vessels that tried to block the entry of boats that were bringing supplies to troops in the grounded BRP Sierra Madre in Ayungin Shoal.

“The Philippines also needs to refrain from being manipulated by the US. Lessons from history tell us that a pawn will only end up being abandoned,” said Mao Ning during her regular press conference on Wednesday, March 6.

Daily presence

Amid the increasing challenges in Southeast Asia, particularly in the South China Sea, the US has vowed to maintain a daily US presence in the region as part of its security commitment to its friends and allies in the region.

US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Daniel Kritenbrink on Thursday, March 7, said the US presence will be more visible in the coming days in Southeast Asia to help Asean partners maintain stability, peace, and order in the region.

“We will be flying and sailing around the region,” the US official said during a digital press briefing attended by The Manila Times and other journalists from Asia and the US.

Earlier, Matthew Miller, spokesman of the US Department of State, said the provocative actions by China demonstrated disregard for the safety of Filipinos and international law.

Meanwhile, the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) praised the Philippines for having “consistently complied” with the Arbitral Award on the South China Sea.

“The arbitral award is final and legally binding on the parties to the dispute under the provisions of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos), and Japan strongly hopes that the parties’ compliance with the award will lead to the peaceful settlement of disputes in the South China Sea,” it said in a statement dated March 6.

Japan, it said, has consistently advocated upholding the rule of law at sea, and would continue to cooperate with the international community such as Asean member states and the United States to protect the free and open international order in the region.

In a separate statement, the embassies of Korea, France and Canada also conveyed their concern over the March 5 Ayungin incident and called for peaceful resolution of disputes.