‘Big Brother’ is with us?


WHILE the jury is still out on whether the incident where a purported Chinese military-grade laser swept the bridge of Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) offshore patrol ship, BRP Malapascua (MRRV-4403) on February 6 and temporarily blinded the crew can be considered an armed attack, the United States in no uncertain voice announced that it will stand by the Philippines as stated in the Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT).

At the time of the laser-beaming incident, BRP Malapascua was escorting a rotation and resupply mission (RoRe) of the Philippine Navy (PN) on Ayungin Shoal, West Philippine Sea (WPS).

“On February 6, 2023,  a China Coast Guard (CCG) vessel with bow number 5205 directed a military-grade laser light at the PCG vessel BRP Malapascua (MRRV-4403) while supporting a RoRe mission of the PN in Ayungin Shoal in the West Philippine Sea,” the PCG said in a statement issued on February 13.

Ayungin Shoal is where the PN landing ship BRP Sierra Madre (LT-57) is grounded, serving as an outpost for a Marine contingent keeping watch over the area.

“As BRP Malapascua reached a 10NM [nautical miles] distance from Ayungin Shoal, the CCG vessel was monitored approximately 4NM of the ship’s dead ahead maneuvering from the portside heading starboard side. The Chinese ship illuminated the green laser light twice toward the BRP Malapascua, causing temporary blindness to her crew at the bridge. The Chinese vessel also made dangerous maneuvers by approaching about 150 yards from the vessel’s starboard quarter,” the PCG added.

Shortly afterwards, BRP Malapascua altered course from Ayungin Shoal, as part of its deployment plan, and headed toward Lawak Island to continue her maritime patrol and support the BRP Teresa Magbanua (MRRV-9701) for the PCG’s own RoRe mission to its substations in the Kalayaan Island Group (KIG).

The PCG likewise condemned the incident, saying the action was a deliberate attempt to block the Philippine government ships on a mission to deliver food and supplies to military personnel aboard the BRP Sierra Madre.

It also called the latest interference as a “blatant disregard for, and a clear violation of, Philippine sovereign rights in this part of the West Philippine Sea.”

Not the first instance of harassment

IN August 2022, the PCG said, the CCG also prevented their ships from coming closer to Ayungin Shoal.

“The CCG-5205 removed the cover of her 70mm naval armament when BRP Teresa Magbanua came close to Ayungin Shoal at a distance of 2.5NM. The said CCG ship, together with the two Chinese Maritime Militia (CMM) and CCG-5102, formed a 13NM-radius blockade with the grounded PN vessel as its reference to prevent Philippine government ships from reaching the AFP [Armed Forces of the Philippines] troops,” it added.

The PCG said it is evident that the CMM vessels took orders from the CCG to prevent the Philippine ships from entering the shoal.

It added that the CMM even deployed their utility boats to support the blockade and shadowing by the CCG.

Despite these challenges, the PCG said they remain steadfast in protecting the sovereignty and rights of the country and Filipinos in the West Philippine Sea.

“The PCG will continue to exercise due diligence in protecting the country’s territorial integrity against foreign aggression. The AFP can always rely on the PCG to support their resupply mission in Ayungin Shoal. Despite the dangerous maneuver of the much larger CCG ships and their aggressive actions at sea, the PCG ships will always be in the West Philippine Sea to sustain our presence and assert our sovereign rights,” PCG Commandant Admiral Artemio M. Abu said.

US affirms MDT commitment to PHL

AS this developed, US Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III, in a telephone call with Department of National Defense (DND) Officer-in-Charge Senior Undersecretary Carlito Galvez Jr. on February 22, reiterated that an armed attack on any Philippine ships and aircraft at the South China Sea (SCS) will invoke commitments to the MDT.

“Secretary Austin reiterated that the US’ commitment to the alliance remains ironclad, and that an armed attack on Philippine Armed Forces, aircraft and public vessels, including the Coast Guard, anywhere in the South China Sea, would invoke US mutual defense commitments under Article IV of the MDT,” DND spokesperson Arsenio Andolong said in a statement.

Article IV of the MDT between the Philippines and the United States stipulates, “Each Party recognizes that an armed attack in the Pacific area on either of the Parties would be dangerous to its own peace and safety and declares that it would act to meet the common dangers in accordance with its constitutional processes.”

The MDT between the two nations was signed on August 30, 1951.

In the statement, Galvez expressed appreciation for the US government’s support for the Philippines in view of recent incidents in the WPS, including the use of a military-grade laser against members of the PCG.

“Recalling the President’s guidance that the Philippines will not give up an inch of its territory, Senior Undersecretary Galvez underscored that the Department will steadfastly uphold its mandate of protecting the country’s territorial integrity, sovereignty and sovereign rights,” Andolong said.

During the phone call, both Austin and Galvez exchanged views and updates on recent security developments and explored opportunities to work together in addressing common security challenges.

“Senior Undersecretary Galvez and Secretary Austin also agreed to expand cooperation with like-minded partners in the region, and emphasized the importance of keeping the Philippines-US alliance strong in order to maintain a free and open Indo-Pacific region,” the DND spokesman said.

Andolong said the interaction between the two defense officials ended with “a hope to continue discussions during the upcoming Two-Plus-Two Ministerial Consultations sometime this year.”

The phone call between Austin and Galvez marked the second bilateral engagement between the two defense officials.

This follows the February 2 visit of Austin to the Philippines, where both nations agreed to designate four new “Agreed Locations” under the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) in strategic locations in the country.

“The Philippines and US sides agreed to designate four new ‘Agreed Locations’ under EDCA in strategic areas of the country. These sites will be announced in due time, i.e., when all the necessary consultations, coordination, staff work and other requirements are completed or complied with,” he explained.

“A consensus was reached on the ‘Agreed Locations.’ However, these will be finalized and announced only when appropriate requirements are fulfilled,” Andolong said.

Andolong earlier said the locations will only be made public once the necessary works and preparations are completed. Last week, however, as Galvez and other officials were briefing the Senate, several senators called them out for apparent lapses in the development of earlier EDCA sites, and wondered aloud why one location is in the northern Philippines, despite the understanding that the security arrangements with the US are meant to bolster the Philippines’s ability to defend its rights in the South China Sea.

Finalized after eight rounds of talks in August 2013, the EDCA, which was signed in 2014, allows US troops access to designated Philippine military facilities, the right to build facilities, and preposition equipment, aircraft and vessels, but rules out permanent basing.

The Philippine government is working with the US to build the future facilities at the Cesar Basa Air Base in Floridablanca, Pampanga; Fort Magsaysay Military Reservation in Nueva Ecija; Lumbia Airfield in Cagayan de Oro City; Antonio Bautista Air Base in Puerto Princesa City, Palawan; and Benito Ebuen Air Base in Cebu province.

Australia commits

IN a related development, Galvez and Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Defense of Australia, Richard Marles shared the two countries’ aspiration for collective security and defense in Indo-Pacific during their high-level meeting on February 23.

“We reaffirm the need to continue working together towards the common goal of maintaining a free, open and secure Indo-Pacific region,” the DND chief added.

“The Philippines and Australia believe in the importance of collaboration among like-minded security partners to achieve a collective security and defense—those are the words of our honorable visitor—in the region, where nations could freely exercise their sovereign rights while pursuing stability and prosperity in the Asia-Pacific and the Indo-Pacific,” he added.

Marles likewise underscored Australia’s commitment to the maintenance of the global rules-based order in partnership with the Philippines.

“Today, I think Australia and the Philippines have a greater strategic alignment than we’ve had in any moment in our respective histories. Both countries are allies of the United States, both countries have China as our largest trading partner. Both the Philippines and Australia are completely committed to a global rules-based order,” the Australian defense chief stressed.

“And so today, building on that sense of strategic alignment, we have talked about the way in which we can take what has been a very strong relationship between our two countries over many decades to an even higher level, and really, an unprecedented level,” Marles said.

More engagements eyed

THE two defense officials also disclosed that Australian and Filipino defense forces are regularly conducting joint exercises and patrols.

The Philippines and Australia agreed to take further steps in strengthening the people-to-people engagements for the continued development of the two nations’ individual and joint defense capabilities.

“We are sending one of the largest contingents to Exercise Balikatan in the coming months, and we look forward to the Philippines, for the first time, sending observers to Exercise Talisman Sabre in Australia in August,” Marles said.

“We’re going to work together to look at ways in which we can deepen the opportunities where Filipino servicemen and women can work alongside Australian servicemen and women and to that we’re building upon training, which is occurring right now in Mindanao. [We are] also looking at ways in which we can pursue joint patrols together in the South China Sea, and looking at ways in which we can do more exercises together,” he added.