Commentary Editor's Pick South China Sea: Waters of Contention

BRP Sierra Madre in Ayungin shoal: Test for MDT

BRP Sierra Madre in Ayungin Shoal. Photo from New York Times.
BRP Sierra Madre in Ayungin Shoal. Photo from New York Times.

THE rising tension at the Ayungin shoal, just 21 nautical miles from Mischief Reef where China has built fortifications, could be a test on the usefulness of the 1951 PH-US Mutual Defense Treaty

In its statement issued last Friday, the Department of Foreign Affairs said:  “The BRP Sierra Madre, a commissioned Philippine Naval Vessel, was placed in Ayungin Shoal in 1999 to serve as a permanent Philippine installation in response to China’s illegal occupation of Mischief Reef in 1995. This was prior to the signing of the Declaration of Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea in 2002. The Philippines reiterates that Ayungin Shoal is part of its continental shelf over which the Philippines has sovereign rights and jurisdiction.”

This is the first time that the Philippine government admitted that the 100 meter-long Sierra Madre, a World War II vintage LST that had served the United States as USS Harnett County  during the Vietnam War and acquired by the Philippines in 1976, was deliberately  grounded in Ayungin Shoal, 105.77 nautical miles from Palawan. Before, Philippine authorities played coy about the grounding of Sierra Madre in Ayungin shoal, which the Chinese call Ren’ai Reef.

Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario
Last year, at the Asean Regional Forum in Brunei, Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario disclosed that Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi told him “ the grounded ship has been there for so long.”

Del Rosario said he replied: “We don’t have money to move it.” He further said Wang offered to do it themselves.” To which he said he didn’t comment.
Wang Yi

(Click here for New York Times multi-media feature on BRP Sierra Madre.)

It is also significant that the DFA statement stressed that BRP Sierra Madre is a commissioned “commissioned Philippine Naval Vessel.”  A country’s navy ship is considered part of its territory.

Under the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty, “ Each Party recognizes that an armed attack in the Pacific area on either of the Parties would be dangerous to its own peace and safety and declares that it would act to meet the common dangers in accordance with its constitutional processes. “

It also states that”… an armed attack on either of the Parties is deemed to include an armed attack on the metropolitan territory of either of the Parties, or on the island territories under its jurisdiction in the Pacific Ocean, its armed forces, public vessels or aircraft in the Pacific.”

The United States has been vocal against what it considers China’s aggressive moves in South China Sea, which China claims to own almost wholly under its much disputed 9-dash line map. But it has stressed that it is neutral in the territorial disputes over the area also involving Brunei, Malaysia, Philippines,  Vietnam and Taiwan.

Justice Antonio T. Carpio, in a speech last year, said that “the U.S. has made it clear that the islands, reefs and rocks in the South China Sea are outside the scope of the Mutual Defense Treaty.”

So far, the United States has not gone beyond expression of concern. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki last week described China’s blocking of the  Ayungin-bound civilian ships as “ a provocative move that raises tensions.”

She added:” Pending resolution of competing claims in the South China Sea, there should be no interference with the efforts of claimants to maintain the status quo.”

The latest confrontation in Ayungin shoal happened last week when Chinese Coast Guards blocked two civilian ships hired by the Philippine Navy to bring supplies to the eight members of the Philippine Marines stationed in BRP Sierra Madre. The past months,  under an atmosphere of  peaceful co-existence  that Chinese and Philippine authorities informally agreed on, the Philippines uses civilian ships to bring supplies to Sierra Madre which the Chinese Coast Guard do not bother.

China alleged that the two ships were not bringing just food supplies but also “concrete and rebar and other construction materials with a purpose of building facilities on the reef.”

The importance that  China attaches to Ayungin shoal is noted  by its  recognition of  Philippine  presence in eight places  in South China Sea (Lawak, Patag, Parola,Pag-asa,Kota, Panata,Rizal, Likas) but not in Ayungin Shoal.

Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Hong Lei said Monday that  China “will never allow any form of occupation of the Ren’ai Reef …”

He warned that “China watches closely and is highly vigilant on further possible provocations in the South China Sea by the Philippines and it must bear all the consequences arising therefrom.”

What if  China decides to tow the BRP Sierra Madre?

Retired Commodore Rex Robles said that would be “an intrusion into Philippine territory.”

Retired diplomat Lauro Baja Jr said “that would be an act of war, worse than the water cannon incident.”

Using the MDT as cover, the Philippines is allowing the United States to  build military facilities inside military camps for the latter to carry out its Pivot Asia security  strategy. The agreement is expected to be signed next month during the Manila visit of President Obama.

If China tows  BRP Sierra Madre  out of Ayungin Shoal, will the United States help the Philippines under the MDT?

That’s a relevant issue that President Aquino should clarify with Obama.