China makes sure Jackson Atoll won’t be another Ayungin

Ellen T. Tordesillas

Posted at Mar 07 2016 12:28 AM

The Chinese have not occupied Jackson Atoll (Philippine name is Quirino and Wufang Jiao in Chinese) in the Spratlys, as erroneously reported in Philippines media.

Not yet.

But the Chinese were there last December as related by the spokesman of the Chinese Foreign Ministry Hong Lei in his regular press briefing last March 2.

Hong said “At the end of the year 2015, a foreign vessel was grounded near Wufang Jiao of China's Nansha islands. The owner of the vessel tried many times to tow it away but failed. He then decided to abandon the ship and dismantled and took away its main equipment. If the vessel was left aground for a long time, it might cause possible impediment to navigation safety and damage to the marine environment. Therefore, China Rescue and Salvage of Ministry of Transport recently sent salvage ships to tug the grounded vessel out of the shallow water for proper disposal. During the operation, the Chinese side advised fishing boats near the waters to stay away for navigation security and operation safety. The Chinese ships have returned after the operation.”

Although Hong only said “foreign vessel,” one news report said it was a Philippine-registered fishing vessel.

Diplomatic sources said China had to immediately remove it from Jackson Atoll as it didn’t want another “Ayungin” to happen.

It will be recalled that in 1999, the Philippine Navy “placed” the BRP Sierra Madre, in the guise of it having run aground in Ayungin Shoal to serve as a permanent Philippine Government installation in response to China’s illegal occupation of Mischief Reef, about 50 nautical miles away, in 1995.

The BRP Sierra Madre in Ayungin Shoal is being manned by a small contingent from the Philippine Marines.

What makes the Jackson Atoll incident disconcerting is that the Chinese came and left the coral reef, some 140 nautical miles west of Palawan, and Philippine authorities only knew about it more than two months after.

Western Command chief Vice Admiral Alexander Lopez, denying the Philippine Star report of a Chinese occupation of Jackson Atoll, said, “There is no continued or sustained presence by the Chinese there. It’s not true that they have control of Quirino Atoll. We had a flight there last Feb. 24, the Chinese are no longer there. In fact, Filipino fishermen are already there...Definitely, that’s unoccupied."

Jackson Atoll, a ring-shaped coral reef that has five (earning for itself the name Jackson Five) closely spaced islets on it encircling a lagoon, is being claimed by the Philippines, China and Vietnam.

Unoccupied, its location is crucial - between the Philippine-occupied Lawak (Nashan) island and China-occupied Mischief Reef (Philippine name is Panganiban. Meiji Reef to the Chinese) which has now been turned into a military base with an airfield.

Magdalo Rep. Ashley Acedillo said there is a need for the government to increase its presence in Jackson Atoll given that five years ago, China had already targeted it.

In 2011, VERA Files reported that a Chinese warship fired at Filipino fishermen in Jackson atoll.

A portion of the VERA Files report:

“’This is Chinese Warship 560. You are in the China territory. Leave the area immediately.”

“Upon hearing this warning through a marine band radio, three Philippine boats fishing in Quirino, or Jackson atoll, a Philippine-claimed islet off Palawan in the disputed Spratly Islands, scampered away.

“But the Chinese warship still fired three shots at the vessels F/V Jaime DLS, F/V Mama Lydia DLS and F/V Maricris 12. The Philippine Navy later identified the Chinese warship as Dongguan, a Jianghu-V Class missile frigate.

“The incident in the South China Sea happened on Feb. 25—before March when the Philippine-commissioned seismic vessel was reportedly harassed in Reed Bank in western Palawan and before the Chinese vessels laid steel posts and a buoy in May in the Amy Douglas (Iroquois) Bank southwest of Reed Bank which Manila said is within its 200-mile exclusive economic zone.”

In the Philippine Star report last week, fishermen complained about “gray and white Chinese ships” (Chinese Navy) preventing them from going to the Jackson Atoll lagoon which is their traditional fishing ground.

The decision on the Philippine suit against China before the United Nations Arbitral Court is expected soon.

The Chinese have always been known to be reactive: It occupied Mischief Reef in 1994 after joint development talks between China and the Philippines over gas-rich Reed Bank broke down and the Ramos administration granted an oil exploration permit to Alcorn Petroleum and Minerals.

China started the reclamation in Spratlys after the Philippines filed the suit questioning its nine-dash line map before the U.N. and the decision of the Aquino government to allow American troops to return to the Philippines.

The recent Chinese activities in Jackson Atoll should serve as alarm bells to Philippine authorities.

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