THE United States better be ready for possible support action in the disputed Ayungin shoal now that the Philippine military has announced plans to “improve the living conditions” of the marines posted on the decrepit BRP Sierra Madre grounded there.
Although the entry of Manila’s repair crew is expected to be coordinated with Beijing, which should allow it for humanitarian reasons, it is likely that China’s coast guard would, as usual, want to check what/who are being brought in.
Improving the living conditions of soldiers exposed to the harsh elements and to possible infection from the rusty surroundings will involve more than cleaning up and repainting their quarters.
Repairs may even include propping up the derelict which, photos indicate, might just list and slide to the bottom if caught in the tricky combination of wind, tide, erosion and gravity.
The 100-meter-long Sierra Madre served the US Navy as an LST (landing ship, tank) in World War II and the Vietnam War, after which it was left by the US with Vietnam, and later handed down to the Philippines.
It carries the name of the longest mountain range in the country running 540 kilometers, as if it were Luzon’s spinal column along its east coast, from Cagayan in the north down through Quezon province.
In 1999, the Sierra Madre hit submerged reefs at Ayungin and ran aground. As no effort was made to pull it back up, stories from the military went around that it was intentionally grounded to serve as an outpost in that area 105 nautical miles (194 kilometers) west of Palawan.
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IN A “Laging Handa” Malacañang media briefing on Monday, AFP chief Lt. Gen. Andres Centino said when asked if the armed forces plans to refurbish the ship: “Dahil may mga kasamahan tayong mga sundalong nandoon, we have to also ensure that iyong living conditions nila ay maayos kaya inaayos natin ang tirahan nila doon sa barko na iyon.”
(“Since we have soldiers there, we have to also ensure their living conditions are good, so we are fixing their shelter on that ship.”)
Whatever is in the back of the mind of the military top brass, or of the political leadership (President Duterte et al.), the government has to keep the US informed if it expects Washington to come to its aid as a treaty ally if anything goes wrong.
If the “fixing the shelter” idea was not just a spur-of-the-moment response to the question during the briefing, we presume that the plan has been studied thoroughly and discussed with the military’s US counterpart.
During the “repair” which would entail going back and forth to Manila, there could be incidents that might trigger or require a US response under the 1951 PH-US Mutual Defense Treaty which commits the parties to come to the succor of the ally if attacked.
In their continuing dialogue, it has been clarified that “attack” refers to an armed attack on either party’s Pacific territory, its armed forces, or its public vessels. That territory includes the West Philippine Sea where Ayungin and several disputed Philippine areas are located.
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IT APPEARS that China’s harassing and firing of water cannons on Nov. 16 at supply boats going to the Sierra Madre fell short of an attack as defined otherwise the Philippines would have invoked the MDT to hit back.
What if in the future there would be an exchange of actual fire? The question of who fired first may have to be answered before Uncle Sam, who could drag its feet, wades in.
If still reluctant to tangle with the Asian dragon encroaching on its neighbors’ territories, the US way across the Pacific may invoke another MDT provision that the approval of its Congress is still needed to honor its solemn commitments.
In short, as every Filipino should know by now, US reaction under the MDT is not always automatic but subject to a detailed definition of terms and a cumbersome constitutional process – unless the US itself, its forces, or citizens are directly in the line of hostile fire.
As Ayungin at 105 nautical miles (194 km) from Palawan is well within the 200-nautical-mile Philippine exclusive economic zone by law and convention, it is not Beijing’s business to tell Manila what to do or not do in its own maritime zone.
When three Chinese coast guard vessels blocked and fired water cannons on a supply mission to the Sierra Madre, and the Philippines did not do anything more than write diplomatic protests and deliver speeches, Manila may have lost that crucial round to Beijing.
In “allowing” the delivery of supplies “for humanitarian reasons” a week after it blocked them, the bully remained on top.
• Sierra Madre a PH snapshot
THE rust-encrusted Sierra Madre, now a sorry shadow of a once-proud vessel, looks ready to sink or fall apart at Ayungin with the slightest nudge.
It has become the “Exhibit A” of the state of the Philippines’ lack of preparedness (di Laging Handa?) to defend its sovereign territory against all intruders, including those masquerading as friends.
While the Commander-in-Chief is professing concern for “my (his) soldiers”, suppose a killer typhoon lashes the Ayungin area – and China, again for alleged humanitarian reasons, comes to rescue the marines trapped in their dilapidated quarters, will they abandon the ship?
Suppose they see no choice but to go with their would-be rescuers, to save themselves. Then in their absence, either the angry waves or a sneaky tug pulls the abandoned carcass of the Sierra Madre to its grave in the brine, what happens?
All that, of course, is pure speculation. But should not President Duterte snap out of his own infatuation with his Chinese idol and consider instead the interest of his own people?