MANILA (2nd UPDATE) — The Philippines insisted Tuesday that its garrison stationed on the BRP Sierra Madre at the Ayungin Shoal in the West Philippine Sea was part of "legitimate government activities", after China demanded the dilapidated warship's removal from the contested waters.
"The rotation and resupply mission to and the upkeep of the BRP Sierra Madre are legitimate Philippine government activities in our country’s exclusive economic zone, which are all in accordance with international law, particularly UNCLOS," Philippine Ambassador to China Jaime Florcruz told ABS-CBN News.
Florcruz's statement followed China's foreign ministry's latest pronouncement urging the Philippines to "tow away the warship illegally 'stranded' on the reef" as it supposedly "promised."
NOT BACKING DOWN
The National Security Council is not aware of any record, document or verbal agreement on China's claim that the Philippines promised to withdraw the BRP Sierra Madre, said the council's assistant director general Jonathan Malaya.
"Sinadsad natin ‘yan matagal na panahon na, during the time of President Estrada. Kailan nangyari ang commitment na 'yan, sino ang nagsabi,” he told reporters in a virtual interview.
(We grounded that ship back during the time of President Estrada. When did that supposed commitment happen and who said it?)
He also told ANC that the Philippines would not back down from asserting its rights over the Ayungin Shoal, citing its location well within the country's exclusive economic zone (EEZ).
"As far as the Philippines is concerned, Ayungin Shoal is within our EEZ, it's part of the continental shelf of the Philippines, and we have troops in the shoal itself. We are in active possession of the shoal," Malaya said.
"We will never abandon Ayungin Shoal. Ayungin Shoal is part of philippine territory," he added.
For his part, Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) spokesperson Col. Medel Aguilar said that another resupply mission to the Ayungin garrison would be done "in due time."
"Gagawin po natin ito sa tamang panahon. Magiging maingat po tayo dahil hindi natin alam kung ano ang kanilang plano. Ito po ay isang obligasyon na dapat nating gampanan dahil una, iyong mga sundalo natin doon sa [BRP] Sierra Madre needs to be provided with the necessary supplies for their needs also," he told TeleRadyo Serbisyo.
(We will resupply in due time. But we have to be careful because we do not know what China's plans are. We are obliged to resupply our troops at BRP Sierra Madre as they needed to be provided with the necessary supplies to meet their needs.)
BRP Sierra Madre has been grounded at the Ayungin Shoal to assert Manila's claim to sovereignty in the area after China occupied the Mischief Reef in the mid-1990s.
A fresh confrontation between the 2 countries occurred on Saturday after Chinese Coast Guard blocked and fired water cannon on Philippine vessels.
The incident happened as the Philippine Coast Guard escorted charter boats carrying food, water, fuel and other supplies to Filipino military personnel stationed at Ayungin.
The Philippines has filed a note verbale and summoned the Chinese ambassador over the incident.
According to Florcurz, he also registered the Philippines' "strong protest" on the incident in Beijing on Monday.
"The Philippines demands that China immediately stop its illegal activities in our maritime zones," he said.
"China’s illegal exercise of maritime law enforcement powers; interference with a legitimate Philippine rotation and resupply mission, including its aggressive use of a water cannon against our vessels; and any other activity that infringes upon our sovereign rights and jurisdiction over Ayungin Shoal are violations of international law," he added.
In a statement, Sen. Imee Marcos, President Ferdinand Marcos, Jr,'s sister, condemned the Chinese Coast Guard's actions and asked the DFA to "demand an explanation from their Chinese counterparts for the unwarranted and patently illegal firing of a water cannon on our Coast Guard."
"We must also see to it that our Coast Guard becomes better equipped but relies less on foreign countries that have their own national interests to pursue," said Sen. Marcos.
Beijing claims almost all of the South China Sea, within which is the smaller West Philippine Sea, and has ignored a 2016 international court ruling that its assertion has no legal basis.
— With a report from Bianca Dava, ABS-CBN News