WPS mess blamed on post-Erap govts

(THE MANILA TIMES) (UPDATE) SEN. Joseph Victor “JV” Ejercito on Tuesday said that administrations that succeeded the Estrada presidency are “partly at fault” for not establishing a permanent base in Ayungin Shoal in the West Philippine Sea (WPS).

The senator said the apparent failure of the Arroyo, Aquino 3rd and Duterte administrations to do so had emboldened China to continue its assertion of its claim over some features in the WPS.

He again defended his father, former president Joseph “Erap” Estrada, whom The Manila Times columnist Rigoberto Tiglao claimed to have “promised” China to remove the grounded BRP Sierra Madre from Ayungin Shoal in disputed waters.

JV said Tiglao’s statement “is outright inconsistent with historical facts.”

The BRP Sierra Madre was deliberately beached in Ayungin Shoal in November 1999 to serve as the country’s station in the WPS.

“Such an assertion is impossible, given that it was President Erap himself who ordered the grounding of the BRP Sierra Madre in Ayungin Shoal,” the senator said in a statement.

Ejercito added that his father’s decision was made “in response to heightened Chinese encroachment near Mischief Reef.”

“Instead of decommissioning the ship, President Erap acted on the recommendation of the Department of National Defense and the Armed Forces of the Philippines and deliberately grounded the BRP Sierra Madre in Ayungin Shoal to establish a temporary base for the Philippine military in the area and assert our territorial rights,” he said.

“Until recent years, there were no reported issues between the Philippines and China regarding this matter. It’s only now that the Chinese government is asserting their ownership over that area,” the senator added.

Ejercito said “partly at fault are the subsequent administrations that failed to follow through on establishing a permanent base in that part of the West Philippine Sea and advancing our claim over these disputed waters.”

Tiglao’s ‘distortion of reality’

“Mr. Tiglao’s column is patently inaccurate and distorts the reality of President Estrada’s decisive actions against Chinese aggression,” he also said.

“It is thus imperative that Mr. Tiglao’s column be rectified to accurately reflect actual historical events,” the senator added.

The DFA said the Philippines had decided in 1999 to deploy a permanent station in Ayungin Shoal [through the BRP Sierra Madre] in response to China’s illegal occupation of Panganiban Reef in 1995.

The BRP Sierra Madre, it added, serves as “a permanent station for Philippine military personnel deployed to protect and secure Philippine rights and interests in the West Philippine Sea, particularly in the Ayungin Shoal and its vicinity.”

China last week claimed that the Philippines had repeatedly “promised” to tow away the grounded ship.

Ejercito and his half-brother Sen. Jose “Jinggoy” Estrada on Monday defended their father from Tiglao’s accusation.

“It’s impossible he will commit to remove the same [from Ayungin Shoal]. When was defending our territorial integrity considered ignorance?” Ejercito said.

“At least President Erap (Estrada) had the courage to fight for our sovereignty. Unlike them, who paved the way for NBN-ZTE, the first salvo of Chinese intrusions in our country,” he added without elaborating.

Jinggoy labeled as “stupidity” and a “complete lie” the assertion made by Tiglao that a past administration broke a promise made in 1999 to remove the stranded BRP Sierra Madre from Ayungin Shoal.

“These allegations put forth by Mr. Rigoberto Tiglao have raised concerns about the integrity of our nation’s sovereign rights and our commitment to safeguarding our territorial integrity. Such claims that a former President had promised to remove a vessel that symbolizes our presence and assertion of our rights in the West Philippine Sea is a matter that deserves thorough scrutiny and rigorous analysis,” he said in a privileged speech entitled “The Worthiness of BRP Sierra Madre” delivered on the Senate floor.

“This plot twist in the continuing saga on our country’s territorial claims over the West Philippine Sea came two weeks after we adopted Resolution 79, strongly condemning China’s continuing harassment and its persistent incursions in the West Philippine Sea,” he added.

The senator, who heads the Senate’s National Defense and Security Committee, said the quest to claim portions of the Spratly Islands as part of Philippine territory can be traced back to former president Ferdinand Marcos Sr.’s time in office.

Jinggoy also said Marcos recognized the islands’ strategic and economic significance, considering that some of these islands have lucrative potential oil and gas deposits.

He added that in the 1970s and 1980s, the Marcos government gained control of the Kalayaan Island Group (KIG) when it took over Lawak, Pag-asa, Parola, Likas and Kota, and later on Panatag, Panata and Rizal.

Those “audacious undertakings” were continued by the Estrada administration, Jinggoy said.

He also said the “grounding tactic,” which has significant symbolic and strategic value for the Philippines’ territorial claims and sovereignty in the West Philippine Sea, was carried out under his father’s leadership.

The senator cited the fall of Camp Abubakar — the Moro Islamic Liberation Front’s second-largest camp — as the culmination of the Estrada administration’s all-out war against the MILF and a proof of “my father’s strong resolve to assure internal and external security.”

Now, President Ferdinand Marcos Jr., the senator said, is continuing what his father started, fortifying the country’s stand in defending and protecting the territorial integrity of the Republic.

“This is why the promise to remove the BRP Sierra Madre in Ayungin is a big lie. This strategy was planned by then-Defense Secretary Orly Mercado and the Armed Forces of the Philippines in order to fight what they called “creeping invasion” of China. Can we just simply abandon BRP Sierra Madre in Ayungin? As I have said, it defies logic, Mr. President,” Jinggoy said.

In Philippine submissions to the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) in The Hague, he added, “We reported sightings of Chinese government vessels as well as unidentified aircraft in the vicinity of the Ayungin Shoal as evidence of their aggressive actions within our territory.”

The senator said the Arbitral Tribunal in its 2016 ruling declared that the Mischief Reef, which is in the Spratly Islands, and the Ayungin Shoal are within the exclusive economic zone and continental shelf of the Philippines.

The PCA, in its ruling, said China has failed to exhibit due regard for the Philippines’ sovereign rights in its exclusive economic zone, he added.

Estrada noted that the decrepit, 80-year-old landing ship tank (LST) BRP Sierra Madre, a commissioned ship of the Philippine Navy, no matter how rotten-looking and unseaworthy, is an extension of the territory of the country.

For 24 years now, Estrada said the nation has not heard of any effort to undertake other measures in continuing and fortifying our country’s stronghold in the West Philippine Sea.

“We have been kept by our neighbor China in various forms of bullying, harassment while they continue to build structures in these disputed areas,” he added.

Estrada said in his speech that Tiglao based his claims on the 2022 book of Gregory Poling, an analyst specializing in Southeast Asian political and security issues, offering no other information.

“How can we consider a passage in a book that claims former President Estrada vowed to remove the BRP Sierra Madre from Ayungin Shoal at the request of the Chinese government, as unquestionable truth?” he asked.

Estrada said even the confidential memorandum of then-Department of Foreign Affairs secretary Albert del Rosario addressed to then-president Benigno Aquino 3rd, which Tiglao mentioned in his piece, was ambiguous as it merely stated that the “Chinese side claimed that Philippine authorities promised China that they would immediately remove the stranded vessel.”

“I am quite certain that my father made no such agreement, even verbally to anyone, to any Chinese official during his incumbency,” he added.

“And I can back up my claims as I have earlier said that former Sen. Orly Mercado along with Navy officials, came up with the idea of running aground some of the World War II-era LSTs or landing ships, tank Sierra Madre to stake Philippine claim and establish a presence in the Kalayaan Island Group during a command conference of the Armed Forces.

“Unlike Mr. Tiglao, I could easily verify this information from Sen. Mercado himself, and he attested that there was no such promise made to China. And if indeed there was such an arrangement, how come there was relative ‘peace’ in the West Philippine Sea during the Arroyo administration that spanned nine years? The Arroyo administration was conspicuously ‘silent’ in asserting our sovereign rights over issues concerning the West Philippine Sea.

“They could have kept up the momentum gained by the Estrada administration in pursuing a comprehensive strategy or plan of action to reinforce our country’s territorial claims,” Estrada said.