Commentary South China Sea: Waters of Contention

China offers to remove BRP Sierra Madre from Ayungin shoal

BRP Sierra Madre2
CHINESE Foreign Secretary Wang Yi made an offer yesterday during the Asean Regional Forum in Brunei that rendered the articulate Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario speechless.

Del Rosario told reporters that Wang said “Scarborough and Ayungin were theirs, historically, and we were the ones sending ships, interdicting their fishermen, and the grounded ship has been there for so long.”

Wang was referring to BRP Sierra Madre which ran aground at Ayungin Shoal also known as Second Thomas shoal (Ren’ai Reef to the Chinese) in May 1999.

Ayungin Reef is 105.77  nautical miles from Palawan. It is about 21 nautical miles from Mischief Reef, which was occupied by China in 1995.

Del Rosario said he told Wang: “We don’t have money to move it.”

Wang, del Rosario said  offered “ to do it themselves.”

Asked what was his reply to Wang, del Rosario said: “Nothing.”

Asked what was the reaction of other participants, del Rosario said, “Nothing.”

Founded in 1993, the ASEAN Regional Forum tackles security issues in Asia Pacific Region. It favors preventive diplomacy in solving conflicts among the 27 members which include the 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations – Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Thailand, Singapore, and Vietnam.

Included in the ARF are Asean’s dialogue partners: Australia, Canada, China, Japan, European Union, New Zealand, South Korea, Russia and United States.

Also included are Bangladesh, India, North Korea, Pakistan, Papua New Guinea,Timor- Leste.

China’s offer shows its determination on the reef which is manned by a small contingent of the Marines. It also explains China’s recent stepped up activities in the area.

Last month, the Western Command monitored  a high of 33 Chinese vessels in the area. They reported that at one time, a passing  Chinese Maritime Surveillance came as close as three to six nautical miles.

Three CMS stayed prompting the Department of Foreign Affairs to file a diplomatic protest citing “the provocative and illegal presence of the Chinese government ships around Ayungin Shoal” stressing that the shoal “is an integral part of our national territory … constitutes part of the country’s 200-nautical mile continental shelf as provided under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.”

China asserted that “Ren’ai Reef… is part of the Chinese territory and, an area over which China proclaims sovereignty and vows never to yield an inch to others.”

China does not recognize the presence of Filipino soldiers in the shoal. Ayungin or Ren’ai Reef is not in their list of eight islets (of the more than 250 in the South China Sea) under the control of the Philippines.

The eight islets that the Chinese acknowledged being occupied by the Philippines are Lawak, Patag, Parola,Pag-asa,Kota, Panata,Rizal, Likas.

A  Philippine Navy ship regularly goes to Ayungin  to bring supplies to the Marines who are valiantly guarding the shoal. China’s insistence on Ayungin shoal makes that routine trip risky.

Del Rosario said during the ARF  ministerial retreat, everybody  spoke on the South China Sea, all calling “for peaceful resolution, in accordance with the rule of law, and all of its mechanisms.”

That should lessen the tension in the disputed waters of the South China Sea and hopefully make China reconsider whatever drastic plans they have on Ayungin shoal.