Philippine Marines who were deployed for almost five months aboard the BRP Sierra Madre, a military detachment on Ayungin Shoal, get Bronze Cross medals from Western Command chief Lt. Gen. Roy Deveraturda at a naval forces camp in Palawan on Monday. Photo by Erik De Castro, Reuters
PALAWAN (UPDATED) - A Philippine government vessel successfully delivered fresh troops, food, and water to a military outpost on a disputed shoal in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea) on Saturday, after evading two Chinese coastguard ships trying to block its path.
The new troops raised the flag on Sunday, replacing Marines who had been stationed for almost five months at the outpost on Ayungin Shoal (Second Thomas Shoal).
The outpost is BRP Sierra Madre, a huge, rusting World War Two transport vessel that the Philippine navy intentionally ran aground in 1999 to mark its claim to the reef.
There, around nine Filipino soldiers live for three months at a time in harsh conditions on a reef that Manila says is within its 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ). China, which claims 90 percent of the South China Sea, says the shoal is part of its territory.
"I hope the troops will not be removed from here, and will always be supported," said one of the newly-arrived Marines, Technical Sergeant Albert Villanueva said, after taking his post on the Sierra Madre.
The soldiers who had been replaced over the weekend stayed longer than planned, with limited food and supplies, due to a flare-up with Chinese vessels in the area.
They had been scheduled to go home three weeks ago but Chinese ships blocked two Philippine supply vessels from reaching them on March 9, a move protested by Manila and which the United States described as "provocative".
The Philippine navy resorted to air dropping food and water instead.
On Saturday, tensions simmered again as the Philippine ship with fresh troops and supplies was moving smoothly until it was spotted by a Chinese coastguard ship about an hour away from Ayungin.
The Chinese boat picked up speed to come closer to the Philippine ship, honking its horn at least three times.
After a few minutes, the Chinese ship slowed down, but then a bigger coastguard vessel emerged, moving fast to block the path of the Philippine boat. The Chinese sent a radio message to the Filipinos, saying they were entering Chinese territory.
Instead of stopping or reversing, the Philippine vessel picked up speed and eventually maneuvered away from the Chinese, entering waters that were too shallow for the bigger coastguard ships.
Philippine Marines who were deployed for almost five months aboard the BRP Sierra Madre, a military detachment on Ayungin Shoal, part of the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, pledge allegiance to the Philippine flag during a ceremony upon their arrival at a naval forces camp in Palawan on Monday. Photo by Erik De Castro, Reuters
In a military headquarters in Palawan province on Monday, the nine Marines who were stationed for almost five months on Ayungin received Bronze Cross medals for bravery.
The Bronze Cross is one of the highest military awards in the country.
Nineteen journalists who were onboard a supply ship that evaded a Chinese naval blockade of Ayungin also received citations from the Armed Forces.
"We are just hoping that a resolution may be found for this issue regarding territorial disputes. We are hoping that it will be peaceful. We are hoping," First Lieutenant Mike Pelotera said.
Raising the stakes over the South China Sea, the Philippines filed a case against China on Sunday at an arbitration tribunal in The Hague, subjecting Beijing to international legal scrutiny over the waters for the first time.
China reiterated on Sunday that it would not accept international arbitration, saying the only way to resolve the dispute was through bilateral negotiations.
Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan also have claims to parts of the potentially energy-rich waters. - with a report from Chiara Zambrano, ABS-CBN News