Permanent civilian installations should be constructed at Ayungin (Second Thomas) Shoal and other parts of the West Philippine Sea (WPS) to enforce Philippine control over its waters, said retired Supreme Court Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio on Tuesday (June 14).
This follows a recent incident where two Philippine vessels were harassed by the China Coast Guard (CCG) and maritime militia at Ayungin, which lies 194 kilometers off Palawan province. The BRP Sierra Madre, a World War II-vintage landing ship tank, serves as the country’s outpost in that part of the WPS.
According to Inquirer, Carpio noted that in the latest incident, Chinese maritime militia boats dropped fishing nets to “block the usual entrance” to Ayungin, preventing Philippine fishing boats from supplying Filipino troops manning the outpost. A CCG rubber dinghy later escorted the supply boats to the outpost via another route.
“China is establishing that they control Ayungin and our entry there is at their mere tolerance,” said Carpio, who has been challenging China’s intrusion into the WPS, which lies within the country’s 370-kilometer exclusive economic zone (EEZ).
“We should construct a more permanent platform with a lighthouse and marine research station (there). The structure should be civilian so if China dismantles it, we can bring China to compulsory arbitration under Unclos (United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea)."
He pointed out that “military activities” were beyond the coverage of compulsory arbitration under Unclos, adding that vessels delivering supplies to the Sierra Madre should be escorted by additional ships of the Philippine Navy and the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG).
In 1999, the Sierra Madre was intentionally grounded at the low-tide atoll to serve as an outpost in the wake of the Chinese illegally constructing permanent structures at Panganiban (Mischief) Reef. Panganiban is about 37 km northwest of Ayungin and well within the country’s EEZ.
The reef is now an artificial island, one of seven built by the Chinese over the past decade to assert Beijing’s claims to the entire South China Sea.
Carpio noted that in the Philippines’ landmark 2016 arbitral victory, the tribunal’s ruling explicitly stated that Ayungin was within the country’s EEZ. “Under Unclos, only the Philippines can erect a structure within its EEZ."
China’s maritime militias also masquerade as civilian fishermen who swarm disputed parts of the South China Sea. Last November, two Philippine fishing boats rented by the government to transport food and other supplies for the Sierra Madre’s crew were forced to turn back after three CCG ships attacked and blasted them with water cannons.
Reacting to the incident, Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. said the actions of the Chinese ships were “illegal” and warned that the attack could trigger the application of the 1953 Mutual Defense Treaty between the Philippines and the United States.
A diplomatic protest against the latest Chinese actions, and also against the return of dozens of Chinese maritime militia boats at Julian Felipe (Whitsun) Reef, was also lodged.