How an old ship asserts Philippine claim on Ayungin

Posted at 04/01/14 4:55 AM

MANILA -- The BRP Sierra Madre, an old ship that ran aground on purpose at Ayungin Shoal, is the best that the country has to mark its territory in the disputed West Philippine Sea, a government official said Monday.

In an interview on dzMM, Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) spokesperson and Assistant Secretary Charles Jose explained why the government cannot do anything about BRP Sierra Madre, including replacing it with a new installation.

"Noong 1999, inilagay sa Ayungin Shoal ang barko bilang isang permanent government installation, bilang tanda ng sovereignty ng Pilipinas," he said.

He said this move was Manila's reaction to Beijing's installation of structures on Mischief Reef in 1995.

Mischief Reef is one of the large reefs in the Spratly Islands. It is currently controlled by China, and is part of the territory claimed by both China and the Philippines.

Jose said sending the BRP Sierra Madre to Ayungin Shoal was the fastest way the Philippines asserted its authority over the territory.

This was also done before the member-countries of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the People's Republic of China signed the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea in 2002.

"Isa sa mga provision ng declaration na ito ay ang pag-maintain ng status quo, and to resolve the problem peacefully," said Jose.

He said if the Philippines removes or abandons the ship -- or modifies it -- China will look at the act as a violation of the agreement.

"Politically speaking, wala nang pwedeng gawin because it will change the status quo. On our part, gusto natin sabihin na wala tayong ginawa to violate the agreement," he said.

However, it's a different story if China becomes more aggressive, Jose said.

The Philippines asked a United Nations arbitral tribunal on Sunday to declare Beijing's claims over most of the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea) as a violation of international law, submitting nearly 4,000 pages of evidence to back its case.

A Filipino vessel that also carried Filipino journalists slipped past a blockade of two Chinese coastguard vessels Saturday to deliver supplies to and rotate troops on the BRP Sierra Madre.

China claims nearly the entire South China Sea, a vital avenue for world trade that is also believed to harbor vast oil and gas reserves.

The claims overlap those of the Philippines as well as Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam and Taiwan.

The Philippines case argues the Chinese claims are illegal under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, and interfere with Manila's sovereign rights to its continental shelf.

The dispute has become a key concern for the United States, which, while a military ally of the Philippines, took no position on the sovereignty issues.

It has, however, maintained the importance of freedom of navigation in the vital waterway. - with a report from Agence France-Presse