Photo of the CCG 5201 taken by travel photographer George Tapan.

The Philippine Coast Guard’s (PCG) multi-role response vessel BRP Malapascua was able to get near Ayungin Shoal for the first time despite cruising in parallel with a China Coast Guard (CCG) ship that was in the vicinity.

The BRP Malapascua (MRRV-4403), carrying 32 Kalayaan expedition participants and returning to mainland Palawan through Buliluyan Port, raced towards Ayungin at a distance of 1.2 nautical miles on the morning of March 21, according to a source who goes by the name “Makabayan.”

This is the closest a PCG vessel has ever approached Ayungin, he said, where Filipino troops are stationed in a decrepit navy ship that was purposefully abandoned in the vicinity. China’s territorial conflicts with the Philippines and other nations have elevated the shoal to the status of a maritime flashpoint.

In previous months, the CCG blocked PCG vessels from escorting Filipino vessels carrying food supplies to the BRP Sierra Madre on Ayungin. The most alarming incident happened on February 6, this year, when CCG vessel 5205 aimed a military-grade laser light toward the BRP Malapascua.

“The MRRV-4403 crew demonstrated bravery while conducting patrol mission, and they assert Philippine sovereignty and claim over Ayungin Shoal,” the source claimed.

Additional information that Palawan News was able to obtain claimed that CCG 5201 kept a gap behind BRP Malapascua of about 1,500 yards, but the MRRV ultimately decided to move forward.

From March 16 to 21, the PCG conducted a synchronized maritime patrol (MARPAT) with the Kalayaan expedition, spotting several foreign vessels, including a People’s Liberation Army (PLA) gray ship—Type 056A Jiangdao II Class Missile Corvette.

This missile corvette was sighted within Pag-asa Island’s 12-nautical-mile territorial waters, and when the PCG made repeated radio challenges, the PLA issued its own challenge.

On March 16, the Kalayaan expedition departed the city port, transporting civilian passengers to celebrate the opening of the town’s tourism market.

It is a flagship project of the municipality under the leadership of Mayor Roberto del Mundo.

Kalayaan tourism officer Ken Hupanda said the expedition would not take place if the local government does not feel that the area has the capacity to grow its tourist sector.

Hupanda said BRP Malapascua was followed by the CCG for a period of 30 minutes on March 21 as it made its way back to mainland Palawan.

“We’ve been followed by the [China] Coast Guard for a good 30 minutes during the trip. Pero wala naman kaming na-experience na feeling namin it’s going to be a security threat. Para sa akin it is not really a security threat, from the onlookers’ point of view, maybe it’s a big concern but for us that’s actually a minor concern,” he said.

“We saw them and we can see they are following us. But sabi ko nga, it’s really a normal thing pagdating doon. Hindi talaga natin maiiwasan, because we are sharing the same sea—I think it’s a normal case now,” he added.