Saturday, March 15, 2014

AFP drops food to troops after China ‘blockade’

Source: The Daily Tribune 

BRP Sierra Madre
BRP Sierra Madre

The Philippine military yesterday said it had evaded a Chinese sea blockade by using an airplane to drop food to soldiers on a tiny and remote South China Sea shoal claimed by both countries.

The incident was the latest to escalate tensions between the Asian nations over their conflicting claims to parts of the South China Sea, a major sea lane and rich fishing ground that is believed to hold vast mineral resources.

“We confirmed there was an airdrop of food to our troops,” Defense Department spokesman Peter Paul Galvez said.

He added the airdrop was “via airplane,” but did not say when it occurred nor give further details.

The incident took place at Second Thomas Shoal in the Spratly island group, which is around 200 kilometers from the western Philippine island of Palawan, which Manila insists is part of its continental shelf.

A security official said that the military, particularly the Philippine Navy, is obliged to provide food and water to prevent the personnel from starving to death. The official stressed that the troops stationed in Ayungin Shoal are now running short of food after chartered civilian ships were blocked by Chinese coast guard from delivering supplies last Sunday.

The following day, an Islander plane dropped gallons of water for the troops.

“We were constrained into really aborting the humanitarian mission. The next day we were constrained into dropping water. Not a para-drop, we literally dropped the gallons (of water),” the official said.

“We don’t even have information if they got the water. But we would like to assume that they got it,” he added.

The official vowed the government will “definitely” conduct reprovision for the troops.

“Not because we are trying to court China’s ire or what have you but because we do not want to starve our people to death or to deprove them of water,” the official said.

However, the official admitted that China again could block such attempt.

“We would like the world to know and to perceive that China is doing an inhuman act by doing this. What they are preventing is feeding our people. This is some kind of an embargo wherein you blockade food, you blockade water, you blockade medicine. That cannot be,” said the official.

The Chinese justified the blocking of the Philippine civilian ships by saying they were loaded with construction materials.

The official said there were only supplies intended to improve the “habitability” of the barracks of the troops in Ayungin Shoal, located approximately 120 nautical miles from Rizal town in Palawan.

“We are always maintaining that those are not construction materials, those are mere items for improvement of living condition of our people there, the habitability of the place,” he said.

The shoal is more than 1,000 kilometers from Hainan island, the closest Chinese landmass, but China claims nearly all of the South China Sea based on what it says are historical records.

A tiny unit of Filipino marines lives on the BRP Sierra Madre, a decrepit, beached former World-War-II US navy transport ship that was transferred to the Philippine navy and run aground on the shoal in the 1990s.

Troops on the 1,000-meter long ship have ever since guarded the shoal.

China has long demanded the Philippines pull out the vessel and the marines.

But the Philippines said this week that Chinese coastguard ships blocked two Philippine-flagged civilian vessels on March 9 as they were carrying supplies and personnel to the shoal.
The Philippines said this was the first time there had been such Chinese resistance.

The Philippines issued a diplomatic protest over the incident, but China in response reiterated its position that the shoal was Chinese territory.

The Philippines and China, along with Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam all claim parts or all of the South China Sea.

The Philippine government has accused China of becoming increasingly aggressive in asserting its claims to the sea. Last year it initiated United Nations arbitration to settle the dispute, but China refused to participate.

The Philippines also last month accused Chinese ships of using a water cannon to drive away Filipino fishermen who were approaching Scarborough Shoal, another South China Sea outcrop.

In Washington, The United States on Wednesday accused China of raising tensions by blocking two Philippines vessels as it urged freedom of navigation in the tense South China Sea.

The United States, a treaty-bound ally of Manila, said it was “troubled” by Sunday’s incident in which China prevented movement of two ships contracted by the Philippine navy to deliver supplies and troops to the disputed Second Thomas Shoal.

“This is a provocative move that raises tensions. Pending resolution of competing claims in the South China Sea, there should be no interference with the efforts of claimants to maintain the status quo,” State Department spokesman Jen Psaki said.

The Philippines on Tuesday summoned China’s charge d’affaires, accusing Beijing of a “clear and urgent threat” to Manila’s interests. Beijing countered that the ships “infringed China’s territorial sovereignty” and violated a 2002 declaration of conduct in the South China Sea.

The United States rejected China’s stance, saying that countries had the right to “regular resupply and rotation of personnel” to locations before the 2002 declaration.

The Second Thomas Shoal, which sits around 200 kilometers (125 miles) from the western Philippine island of Palawan, is claimed by the Philippines, China and Taiwan. Beijing calls it Ren’ai Reef.

Malaysia, Brunei and Vietnam claim other parts of the Spratly islands, which lie near vital sea lanes and rich fishing grounds and are also believe to sit on vast mineral resources.

The United States, while saying it takes no position on the sovereignty of disputed territories, has been increasingly robust in its criticism of China. Last month, the United States challenged the legal basis for China’s claims over a vast area across the South China Sea.

The United States has been seeking to prevent China from taking more drastic action in the South China Sea. In November, China declared an Air Defense Identification Zone — requiring planes to report to Beijing — over a vast area in the East China Sea where it has a separate but intense feud over Japanese-administered islands.

Japan and the Philippines have accused China of making growing incursions to challenge their control over territories. US President Barack Obama will visit both Japan and the Philippines next month. Mario J. Mallari and AFP

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