BRP Sierra Madre (LT57) in Ayungin Shoal. (PN file photo)

Lawyer and expert on maritime affairs Jay Batongbacal said China Coast Guard’s (CCG) act of blocking the Philippine supply boats’ mission to bring food to military troops in Ayungin is a deliberate attempt to get them to abandon the shoal so more artificial islands can be built in the West Philippine Sea (WPS).

In a Facebook post on Thursday, Batongbacal speculated that China may be intending to build additional artificial islands in the WPS, notably in Ayungin.

“Ayungin (Second Thomas) Shoal is a low-tide elevation that is indubitably part of the PH continental shelf and EEZ, as per the South China Sea (SCS) Arbitration. Only the PH has any lawful and legitimate right to determine and regulate activities on Ayungin Shoal. CN has absolutely no legal basis to claim any right over the shoal or to regulate/control what happens to it, who uses it, and who has access to it,” Batongbacal said.

“The CCG’s acts of blocking and using water cannon against the PH supply vessels constitute direct, unlawful interference in their free and safe navigation through the West Philippine Sea,” he added.

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He explained that the act could cause a “potential collision,” and was in violation of the 1972 Collision Regulations, which are part of universally acknowledged international law, as well as its duty to respect and promote the safety of navigation and life at sea.

Batongbacal said the CN’s tactic of making it difficult, if not impossible, to continue the presence of the country’s force on Ayungin Shoal by preventing the shipment of food supplies to the isolated outpost is obvious proof of its goal of forcing the Philippines to willingly withdraw and/or leave the shoal.

Ayungin Shoal has long piqued CN’s interest, he said, and it is likely a part of the next objectives for occupancy and possible transformation into another artificial island.

“CN’s actions, coming just a few weeks after the conclusion of the latest meeting for the negotiation of the proposed ASEAN-China Code of Conduct, are evidence of bad faith and lack of sincerity in the ongoing COC negotiations.

The CCG’s unlawful actions demonstrate CN’s implementation of the new CCG Law, and prove that it can and will be used by CN against ships of other nations anywhere it wishes in the SCS,” he said.

“CN’s continued acts in contravention of international law in light of the SCS Arbitration make it internationally responsible for the consequences of its wrongful acts. It can no longer claim that it is in good faith in asserting supposed rights to Ayungin Shoal in light of the specific rulings of the SCS Arbitration on the identity, character, and rights over the shoal,” he added.

Resupply mission to continue
National Security Adviser (NSA) Hermogenes Esperon Jr. said the resupply mission to Filipino soldiers stationed at the BRP Sierra Madre detachment on Ayungin would continue despite fresh tensions in the West Philippine Sea caused by Chinese Coast Guard vessels harassing two Philippine supply boats.

Esperon also condemned the harassment which happened on November 16, stating they will ramp up “enforcements” in the area.

“We will continue the resupply [mission] and we do not have to ask the permission of anybody because that is within our territory,” the state-run Philippine News Agency (PNA) quoted Esperon, also chairperson of the National Task Force (NTF)-WPS, in telling press interviews.

We simply have to enforce, we have to condemn this and protest the incident simply because they are within our sovereign territory, and we have jurisdiction over the area in connection with, No. 1, the UNCLOS, and No. 2, the arbitral ruling, so that is why we are protesting it,” he added in a separate statement released by his office through the Western Command (WESCOM).

According to reports, three Chinese Coast Guard vessels fired water cannons on November 16 at two wooden-hulled Philippine supply boats, preventing them from delivering food and other items to military personnel stationed on the shoal.

Water cannons were fired at the supply boats Unaizah May 1 and Unaizah May 3, inflicting damage to their outriggers.

“They maneuvered and had to abort their resupply mission. But we will continue the resupply and we do not have to ask the permission of anybody because that is within our territory,” he said.

Due to the incident, both boats had to return to Puerto Princesa, 110 nautical miles from Ayungin.

Esperon said they hope Beijing would listen to their protest and back off.

“We hope that with our protest, they will also heed our calls for them to back off. We will send the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) and the Bureau of Fisheries [and Aquatic Resource], to support and, of course, enforce fisheries laws there in Ayungin Shoal,” he added.

“We have to file a protest. The DFA (Department of Foreign Affairs) is filing the protest. We are very concerned of this development and that’s exactly why we have our national task force optimizing the deployment of our combined assets there and so after that DFA takes action sa diplomatic aspect,” Esperon said.

Unusual Chinese presence
Esperon said that more than a week before the incident, they were already wondering why China has an “unusual presence” near Ayungin.

He said only two Chinese maritime militia vessels were usually observed, but last week was different as 19 vessels were spotted near Ayungin and about 45 near Barangay Pag-asa Island, the seat of Kalayaan’s municipal government.

“Record number for the year. So, very aggressive sila — we are protesting that because that is part of our EEZ and those are low tide elevations, tulad ng Mischief Reef, low tide elevation iyon so nobody is supposed to be there. it is well within our EEZ. Some of the vessels remain there. hindi sila umaalis dyan, maaring mabawasan, but last week umabot sila ng 45, masyadong marami. Dati rati below 20, pero naging 45,” Esperon said.

The Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) has already filed a diplomatic protest to the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, calling the act by the Chinese Coast Guard vessels.

The DFA statement also cited the Philippines’ Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) with the United States, which can be triggered in the event of external threats to either country.

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