The Philippine government has adamantly declared that it has no plans whatsoever to remove its derelict BRP Sierra Madre ship which has remained grounded on Ayungin Shoal in the West Philippine Sea (WPS) for over two decades.
A top Beijing official said the place occupied by the ghost Navy ship is part of China’s historical territorial waters as outlined in their controversial Nine-dash line map that lays claim to over 80 percent of the West Philippine Sea – despite the 2016 Arbitral Tribunal ruling invalidating their contentions in favor of the Philippines.
“China demands that the Philippine side honor its commitment and remove its grounded vessel on Ayungin Shoal,” the same official said.
But in a defiant reply, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, a retired military official, said no such commitment exists.
“As far as I know, there is no such commitment (to China),” he said. “That ship has been there since 1999, and if there was a commitment it would have been removed a long time ago.”
Records show the Sierra Madre is a World War 2 warship that the Estrada government purposely grounded in Ayungin Shoal in 1999 to underline the Philippines’ territorial claims and mark its boundary in the Spratly Islands in the WPS, after China suddenly annexed Pantabangan Reef in 1995, and to provide a makeshift base for the small detachment of Marines assigned to “protect” the area.
Lorenzana pointed out that Ayungin lies inside the Philippines exclusive economic zone (EEZ) as awarded by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) in 1982, so China has totally no say what happens there.
Tensions came to a head last Nov. 16 when a Chinese coast guard cutters fired their water cannon at two small Philippine fishing boats sent to resupply the Marines on the Sierra Madre.
Lorenzana, reports said, fired off a terse message to Chinese ambassador to the Philippines Huang Xilian telling him that such hostile actions are a form of “harassment and intimidation.”
It was only after an intense back and forth between PH and Chinese officials when the supply boats were “allowed” to resume their mission but without a Navy escort.
However, Chinese officials were quick to stress that the resupply mission was permitted “out of humanitarian considerations.”
National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon described China’s Nine-dash line claims as “fictitious” as per the Arbitral court’s 2016 ruling so the Philippines can do anything it wants in Ayungin shoal.
Esperon said the violence in the WPS serves to belie Chinese President Xi Jin Ping’s declaration during the recent ASEAN-China summit that Beijing would not “bully” its smaller neighbors in the WPS.
“What he’s saying is different from what’s happening on the ground,” he said.
Former Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario said China was making as “ridiculous” demand to remove the Sierra Madre.
Del Rosario, who served as Foreign Affairs chief for 5 years under President Aquino, said the Philippines made no such commitment to remove the ship.
Several senators also rejected outright the Chinese demands for the removal of the Sierra Madre as China has no right to dictate what the PH can do within its waters.
Photo: Naval History Blog