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China ships on 'blockade positions' amid Ayungin resupply mission —analyst

The Philippine military on Tuesday said it is carrying out a rotation and resupply mission involving civilian contracted vessels for the troops stationed at BRP Sierra Madre in Ayungin Shoal.

American maritime security analyst Ray Powell, who is monitoring the mission, said Chinese vessels were spotted creating blockade positions in the area.

“China's maritime militia has established blockade positions & appears ready to contest (unlike last month's mission). 15 militia ships visible on AIS, likely others (including China Coast Guard) running ‘dark’,” Powell said on X (formerly Twitter).

“Philippine Coast Guard's BRP Cabra & BRP Sindangan providing escort Philippines' resupply boats. As noted yesterday????, at least 1-2 large China Coast Guard spotted in area (running dark) & likely involved in blockade. History suggests probably more,” he added.

Aside from the blockade, BRP Cabra and BRP Sindangan were also shadowed by several Chinese militia vessels, said Powell, a former United States Air Force official and also former defense attaché.

“Philippines' resupply escorts now 13-16 nautical miles from 2nd Thomas Shoal, with BRP Cabra & BRP Sindangan each shadowed by 4x of China's Qiong Sansha Yu militia ships,” he said.

“History suggests likely at least 1x ‘dark’ China Coast Guard ship with each as well, but cannot confirm,” he added.

GMA News Online has sought comment from the Philippine Navy and the Philippine Coast Guard on the supposed blockade but they have yet to provide a statement as of posting time.

In a statement on Tuesday, the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) said it will conduct the resupply mission through its Western Command involving two civilian contracted vessels.

“The RoRe mission will involve two civilian contracted vessels (Unaizah May 1 and 4) supported by Philippine Navy and Philippine Coast Guard ships,” the AFP said.

It said the mission is a “routine task to sustain military forces deployed in the West Philippine Sea and maintain Philippine presence in its exclusive economic zone.” 

Since 1999, BRP Sierra Madre has been grounded at the Ayungin Shoal and is manned by more than a dozen Marines and sailors. It has become a symbol of Philippine sovereignty in the offshore territory.

Ayungin Shoal is part of the Kalayaan Island Group as well as the Philippines' exclusive economic zone and continental shelf.

China claims almost the entire South China Sea (SCS), a conduit for more than $3 trillion of annual ship-borne commerce, including parts claimed by the Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei. The Philippines calls its part of the territory the West Philippine Sea (WPS).

The Permanent Court of Arbitration in 2016 said China's claims over the SCS had no legal basis. Despite this, tensions have flashed over maritime disputes in SCS, with Beijing and Manila trading sharp accusations over a slew of run-ins.

Philippine vessels on patrol and resupply missions to the WPS have been met with dangerous maneuvers by Chinese ships, including a laser-pointing incident, resulting in near-collisions at sea.

In a forum in Australia on Monday, President Ferdinand "Bongbong" Marcos Jr. said the Philippines will push back against China if its sovereign rights in the WPS are ignored.

Marcos lamented that despite the clarity provided by international law, ''provocative, unilateral, and illegal actions continue to infringe upon our sovereignty, our sovereign rights, our jurisdictions'' in the resource-rich region. —KBK, GMA Integrated News