Who Promised to Remove the Grounded Philippine Ship on Second Thomas Shoal?

Recent Features

ASEAN Beat | Diplomacy | Southeast Asia

Who Promised to Remove the Grounded Philippine Ship on Second Thomas Shoal?

Government officials, including two former presidents, have denied Beijing’s claim that Manila made an agreement to remove the ship from the disputed shoal.

Who Promised to Remove the Grounded Philippine Ship on Second Thomas Shoal?

A Philippine flag is seen on the now crumbling Philippine navy ship BRP Sierra Madre at the Second Thomas Shoal locally known as Ayungin Shoal at the South China Sea on Sunday, April 23, 2023.

Credit: AP Photo/Aaron Favila

Philippine officials are denying the claim of the Chinese Foreign Ministry that there was a previous pledge to tow away its ship in the Second Thomas Shoal, known to Manila as Ayungin Shoal and to Beijing as Ren’ai Jiao.

In 1999, the World War II-era ship BRP Sierra Madre was deliberately grounded in the shoal’s shallow waters in response to China’s occupation of nearby Mischief Reef in 1994. The decrepit ship has since become a symbol of the Philippines’ assertion of sovereignty in the contested waters of the South China Sea. The Philippines insists that the Second Thomas Shoal lies well within the country’s exclusive economic zone.

But China has refused to recognize this and considers the grounding of the ship to be illegal. It added that as part of its humanitarian gesture, it has made a temporary special arrangement with the Philippine government for the delivery of necessary life supplies to the crew of the grounded ship. It accused the Philippine government of breaking its commitment to remove the ship and called on it to abandon any plan of building a permanent station in the shoal.

Chinese diplomats mentioned this after their coast guard used water cannons to prevent Philippine vessels from delivering supplies to BRP Sierra Madre on August 5. The incident was widely condemned not just by Philippine officials but also by countries such as the United States, Canada, and South Korea.

Asked about the comments made by Chinese officials, Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr said that he was not aware of any deal concerning the removal of the ship.

“I’m not aware of any such arrangement or agreement that the Philippines will remove from its own territory its ship, in this case, the BRP Sierra Madre from the Ayungin Shoal,” Marcos said. “And let me go further, if there does exist such an agreement, I rescind that agreement now.”

This effectively nullifies the supposed promise given by Philippine officials in the past since the country’s incumbent commander-in-chief has clearly stated the government’s position.

But who made the promise in the first place? Newspaper columnist Rigoberto Tiglao, who also served as spokesperson of former President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, wrote that it was former President Joseph Estrada who made the commitment to remove the ship in 1999.

This was denied by Estrada’s two sons, who currently serve in the Senate. “During my phone conversation with former Senator Orly Mercado, who held the position of defense secretary during my father’s tenure, he confirmed that there was ‘no agreement or promise’ whatsoever made to the Chinese government,” said Senator Jinggoy Estrada in a press statement.

Added Senator J.V. Ejercito in a separate statement, “Mr. Tiglao’s column is patently inaccurate and distorts the reality of President Estrada’s decisive actions against Chinese aggression.”

He added that succeeding administrations should be blamed for failing to build a permanent base in the West Philippine Sea, as Manila refers to its portions of the South China Sea. “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,” he said.

Estrada was president from 1998 until his ouster in January 2001. He was replaced by Arroyo who served as president until 2010. During her term, Arroyo developed closer economic and political ties with the Chinese government.

Arroyo also issued a statement denying that her government made a deal with China. “First, I never made such a promise to China or any other country. Second, I never authorized any of my government officials to make such a promise. Third, I only became aware of such claims recently, when the matter surfaced in public discussions,” said the former president who is currently a deputy speaker at the House of Representatives.

China did not identify the Filipino official who promised to remove the grounded ship. And even if a name is mentioned, it will only prompt flat-out denials.

The supposed broken promise should also not distract public attention from what’s going to happen this week and the succeeding months as the Philippines prepares another mission to deliver supplies to its stranded ship, the reported joint naval drills of several countries in the disputed waters of South China Sea, and the filing of diplomatic protests against Chinese activities and presence in Philippines’ exclusive economic zone.