Amid increased hostilities between China and the Philippines in the South China Sea, lawmakers in Manila have reportedly allocated funds to construct a structure on the Ayungin Shoal or the Second Thomas Shoal in the West Philippine Sea (WPS).
The revelation was made by Senator Sonny Angara to CNN Philippines on December 14 who noted that, “There is funding there so may pupuntahan din ‘yung ating mga barko (our ships have somewhere to go to).” Senator Angara is the chairman of the finance committee that oversees funding.
The revelation comes as the ₱5.768-trillion proposed budget for 2024 was approved by Congress this week, according to the report of the Bicameral Conference Committee. Of the total, the Department of Natural Resources (DND) added ₱500 million, the Philippine Coast Guard ₱2.8 billion, the National Intelligence Coordinating Agency ₱1 billion, and the Philippine Navy ₱6.17 billion to its budget.
“It’s not just the West Philippine Sea; it’s really to augment or to improve the state of our armed forces given what’s happening in the world today,” Angara said. He did not specify the amount of money allocated for the development.
A reef in the contentious South China Sea, the Second Thomas Shoal is a resource-rich waterway that serves as a central shipping channel and is located about 190 kilometers off the western coast of Palawan Island. China claims the shoal as its territory, as part of the South China Sea.
In August this year, Senator Chiz Escudero suggested that the national budget 2024 should include at least ₱100 million for building permanent buildings on the disputed Shoal.
“I will propose the allocation of a minimum ₱100 million to fund the construction of a pier and lodging structures for our soldiers assigned in the area and for our fishermen who might seek temporary refuge in times of bad weather,” Escudero said in a brief statement.
“The allocation for Ayungin Shoal will give President Marcos the budget cover should he decide to do (the construction) next year,” he said.
Elaborating on what the building would entail, he noted that while the structure will serve as “lodging” for soldiers in the rusting BRP Sierra Madre, “its primary use is to be a shelter for fishermen from all nations who will be caught in bad weather.”
The ship, which dates back to World War II, was purposefully run aground in 1999 on the Second Thomas Shoal to act as the nation’s outpost in the WPS. The Filipino forces routinely carry out reinforcement missions to the ship, including food and medical supplies for the troops aboard the ship.
To dig their claws deeper into the Second Thomas Shoal, the Philippines announced in August that it would make efforts to repair the rusting Sierra Madre warship. The United States, a vital ally of the Philippines, has decided to join that effort.
Escudero emphasized, “It will welcome fishermen in distress with warm accommodations, not with a blast of the water cannon. It is there to help and not to harass.” He was referring to consistent efforts by the Chinese to block these reinforcement missions by training water cannons at vessels belonging to the Philippines Coast Guard.
Funds allocated for building of structure on Ayungin[/Second Thomas] Shoal in the West Philippine Sea [South China Sea] under 2024 budget, says Angara
– CNN Philippines https://t.co/WN9GPAdGh1
— Sense Hofstede (@sehof) December 14, 2023
Since the senator first appealed, several lawmakers have stepped on the bandwagon to request funding to build structures in the disputed shoal. Escudero stated that construction in the shoal had to happen quickly because BRP Sierra Madre was rapidly deteriorating after exposure to the weather for 24 years.
When asked whether building a new structure in the shoal would cause an escalation, Philippines-based military analyst Miguel Miranda told EurAsian Times, “The deterioration of Beijing-Manila ties is rapid and dangerous. Unfortunately, we are just one more incident away from lethal violence as Chinese ships are still massing in Philippine waters to cut off the Second Thomas Shoal. This is maritime conquest, plain and simple. The Philippines will respond but in a manner commensurate to its limited naval resources.”
The development, thus, appears to be a significant step taken by Manila given that there are concerns in the Philippines that the Chinese would eventually attempt to invade the disputed shoal as China attempts to isolate a Philippine marine outpost near this shoal.
Tensions Are Boiling Over In The West Pacific Sea
The frequent engagements between the Chinese and Filipino vessels in the contested South China Sea have triggered concerns that these tensions might snowball into an all-out confrontation.
Things came to a head in late October when a Chinese Coast Guard ship and an escorting vessel hit a Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) craft and a military-run supply boat off a shoal claimed by both parties.
A few Filipino officials informed the media that the situation near the disputed Second Thomas Shoal would have gotten worse if the PCG vessels had not promptly steered away from the Chinese ships. Several such instances have since been reported, accompanied by both sides’ bellicose rhetoric and power projection.
Earlier this month, during a resupply trip to BRP Sierra Madre, Philippine vessels were targeted by China Coast Guard (CCG) ships with water cannons, and one of them was rammed. After suffering severe damage from the Chinese high-intensity water cannon strike, one of the two supply boats, the ML Kalayaan, had to be pulled back to port.
Statement of the National Task Force-West Philippine Sea
December 10, 2023, Manila, Philippines
Today, 10 December 2023, China Coast Guard (CCG) and Chinese Maritime Militia (CMM) vessels harassed, blocked, and executed dangerous maneuvers on Philippine civilian supply vessels,… pic.twitter.com/NF66BqVPUM
— Jay Tarriela (@jaytaryela) December 10, 2023
After upsetting a Philippine resupply mission in the same waters, Chinese ships launched a rare “invasion” of Second Thomas Shoal in the West Philippine Sea in a “calculated show of force by Beijing,” a maritime security expert said. One day after the tense supply run, as many as eleven Chinese marine militia vessels were seen in the Philippine-held shoal.
Authorities in the Philippines think Chinese maritime militia boats are helping CCG ships by impersonating fishing boats to harass Philippine vessels in the West Philippine Sea. China’s risky tactics and water cannon strikes during resupply missions in Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal and Ayungin, according to the task force, constituted a “serious escalation.”
With the Philippines now working to solidify its position in the shoal and building the structure, Beijing is expected to pose an impediment and a fierce resistance.