MANILA - Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana on Tuesday said China cannot stop the Philippines from fixing parts of BRP Sierra Madre, a dilapidated Philippine Navy ship at the Ayungin Shoal in the Kalayaan Group of Islands.
This, after Chinese Coast Guard vessels “shadowed” or closely followed two Filipino boats carrying supplies for the BRP Sierra Madre during the Philippine military’s rotation and resupply mission last week.
The Chinese vessels also issued radio challenges against the Philippine side.
Lorenzana said he had already talked with Chinese Ambassador to the Philippines Huang Xilian regarding a similar incident in the past.
“Part of the Chinese tactic ‘yan eh. Pakonti-konti, iipitin nila ‘yan eh. Kaya lang, nag-usap na kami ni Ambassador Huang noong winater cannon nila tayo na, 'Your people cannot do that. You are trying to reinforce Sierra Madre.' Ayaw nilang ma-repair natin ang Sierra Madre na puwedeng mag-permanent,” Lorenzana told reporters in Camp Aguinaldo.
(That's part of Chinese tactic. Slowly, they will take hold of it. Ambassador Huang and I had a talk when we were water-cannoned. I was told, 'Your people cannot do that. You are trying to reinforce Sierra Madre.' They don't want us to repair Sierra Madre such that it will stay there permanently.)
Ayungin Shoal, known internationally as Second Thomas Shoal and to China as Ren'ai Jiao, is within the Philippines' exclusive economic zone, being located 128 nautical miles from Rizal, Palawan.
It is among the nine features in the Kalayaan Island Group being occupied by the Philippines.
Lorenzana pointed out that the BRP Sierra Madre has not been decommissioned yet.
“That is a commissioned ship. We have been resupplying that detachment for the past 20 years. Kailangan ng mga tao namin na i-repair iyang living quarters (Our personnel need to repair the living quarters), so you cannot prevent us from repairing that,” he said, apparently directing his message to China.
“We will improve the quarters of our troops. We will maintain ang barko kasi hindi pa na-decommission iyan (We will maintain the ship because it hasn't been decommissioned yet). It is still part of the PH Navy,” he added.
Lorenzana assured that missions to resupply troops aboard the BRP Sierra Madre will continue.
The Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) has filed over 300 diplomatic protests against China for their interference in legitimate activities of the Philippine government and for their “illegal” activities within Manila’s 200-mile EEZ.
“Nandoon pa rin sila, nagbabantay. Hindi naman tayo nagpapaalam sa kanila. Kasi nga, hindi na umaalis ang Coast Guard nila doon. Palagi nilang nakikita ang ating ginagawa. Every time magdadala tayo ng mga materyales doon, nagsasalita sila, 'Bakit daw nagdadala ng materyales?' Of course, I told them, we are repairing the living quarters. Kita n'yo naman ang barko… We do not want our people there to suffer,” Lorenzana said.
(They are still there, on guard. But we're not asking permission from them. Their Coast Guard refuses to leave the area. They can always see what we're doing. Every time we deliver materials there, they complain why we're bringing those materials. Of course, I told them, we are repairing the living quarters. Just look at the situation of the ship. We do not want our people there to suffer.)
He went on, “Marami silang kondisyones na (They have a lot of conditions) I’ve been telling DFA. So they’re submitting, filing a protest. But we will continue to resupply the Sierra Madre. Hindi tayo titigil diyan (We will not stop).”
Lorenzana said any attack on the BRP Sierra Madre will trigger the US-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty.
Last December, China demanded that the Philippines remove the BRP Sierra Madre from Ayungin Shoal.
Before this, the CCG also blocked and fired water cannons on two Philippine supply boats, prompting the government to call out China during the ASEAN-China Summit in November.
China's nine-dash line claim over almost the entire South China Sea has been adjudged as having no legal basis by an International arbitration court.