China cannot stop the Philippines from fixing parts of the BRP Sierra Madre, the dilapidated Philippine Navy ship at the Ayungin Shoal in the Kalayaan Group of Islands, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said Tuesday.
Chinese Coast Guard vessels had “shadowed” or closely followed two Filipino boats carrying supplies for the Sierra Madre during the Philippine military’s rotation and resupply mission last week, Lorenzana noted. The Chinese vessels also issued radio challenges to the Philippine side.
Meanwhile, the Defense secretary, who steps down in two days, on Monday signed a P30-billion contract with Korean shipbuilding company Hyundai Heavy Industries (HHI) for six offshore patrol vessels (OPV) for the Philippine Navy.
Lorenzana signed the deal with HHI vice chairman and president Sam Hyun Ka at Camp Aguinaldo in Quezon City.
The patrol boats are 94.4 meters long and 14.3 meters wide, with a displacement of 2,400 tons, a maximum speed of 22 knots, a cruising speed of 15 knots, and a range of 5,500 nautical miles.
Lorenzana said he had already talked to Chinese Ambassador to the Philippines Huang Xilian regarding a similar incident in the past.
“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,” he told reporters in Camp Aguinaldo.
Ayungin Shoal, known internationally as Second Thomas Shoal — and to China as Ren’ai Jiao — is within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone, 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 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. Our personnel need to repair the living quarters, so you cannot prevent us from repairing that,” he said.
“We will improve the quarters of our troops. 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 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.
“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 thosematerials. 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,” Lorenzana said.
Lorenzana said any attack on the BRP Sierra Madre will trigger the US-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty.
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.