Marcos urged to keep grounded vessel at shoal

THE BRP SIERRA MADRE, a marooned transport ship which Philippine Marines live in as a military outpost, is pictured in the disputed Second Thomas Shoal, part of the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea. — REUTERS

By John Victor D. Ordoñez, Reporter

THE GOVERNMENT of President Ferdinand R. Marcos, Jr. should ensure that the World War II-era ship that the Philippines grounded at Second Thomas Shoal in the South China Sea in 1999 remains there amid Chinese pressure to get it out of the disputed shoal, according to a senator.

“The BRP Sierra Madre should remain on Ayungin,” Senator Ana Theresia N. Hontiveros-Baraquel said in a statement on Monday, referring to the Filipino name of Second Thomas Shoal. “Our troops have been risking their lives to guard that ship and we should not take their sacrifice for granted.”

China has been trying to block Philippine resupply missions to the shoal, accusing the Marcos government of bringing construction materials to fortify the ship.

China claims almost the entire South China Sea, through which more than $3 trillion of annual ship-borne commerce goes through. Its claims overlap with those of the Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei.

A United Nations-backed tribunal in 2016 voided China’s expansive claims for being illegal.

A Chinese coast guard vessel on March 23 fired a water cannon at a Philippine boat trying to bring food and other supplies to a handful of soldiers on the dilapidated vessel.

Manila later lodged a protest and said the boat was heavily damaged and some crew injured. It then summoned China’s envoy in Manila to protest “aggressive actions” in the South China Sea.

Last week, Mr. Marcos said his government would enforce countermeasures against “illegal, coercive, aggressive and dangerous attacks” by China’s coast guard and maritime militia within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone in the waterway.

Former presidential spokesman Herminio L. Roque has said ex-President Rodrigo R. Duterte had a “gentleman’s agreement” with China not to bring building and repair materials to troops stationed at the ship.

The deal involved keeping the “status quo” at the shoal but did not entail the ship’s removal.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Gan Yu earlier said the March 23 Philippine resupply mission had tried to transport construction materials to the grounded ship.

Ms. Hontiveros-Baraquel said the supposed deal was not surprising Mr. Duterte’s foreign policy pivot toward China.

“Duterte never accorded our 2016 arbitral award its much-deserved respect and reverence, which is why this so-called gentleman’s agreement is not surprising,” she said in mixed English and Filipino.

“A decision of such importance would have gone through a thorough policy-making process,” Senator Jose “Jinggoy” P. Estrada said in a separate statement.

He said his father, former President Joseph E. Estrada, never made a deal with China to have the dilapidated ship removed from Second Thomas Shoal.

Senate Majority Floor Leader Emmanuel Joel J. Villanueva on Monday filed a resolution condemning China’s aggression in the South China Sea, urging the government to come up with countermeasures to assert Philippine sovereignty in the waterway.

In Resolution No. 980, he urged the government to “put an end to the continued aggression” of China in the South China Sea.

Ms. Hontiveros-Baraquel last week urged the Department of Foreign Affairs to file a resolution before the United Nations General Assembly condemning China’s aggression at sea.

Under Executive Order 57 published on Sunday, Mr. Marcos ordered agencies to boost coordination on maritime security to confront “a range of serious challenges” to territorial integrity and peace, as the sea dispute with China worsens.

The order does not mention China but follows a series of confrontations and accusations between the two neighbors over disputed areas of the South China Sea.

In a separate statement, Senator and presidential sister Maria Imelda “Imee” R. Marcos said allowing too much foreign interference in the sea dispute could escalate tensions.

Citing section 7 of the order, she said the National Maritime Council’s authority to accept donations, contributions and other grants from domestic and foreign sources could lead to a “trojan horse of foreign interference.”

“Such largesse has been the fuel to never-ending conflicts as we still see in Ukraine and Gaza,” said Ms. Marcos, who heads the Senate committee on foreign relations. “To prevent yet another regional conflict, what we need instead are solutions for peace from those who claim to be our genuine allies.”

The Philippine Senate has approved a bill that seeks to set up maritime zones and territories in the South China Sea and another that aims to attract investments in local defense equipment manufacturing.