Philippines says unaware of deal with China over disputed reef

President Ferdinand Marcos said Wednesday he was “not aware” of any agreement with China to remove a Philippine Navy vessel grounded on a reef in the disputed South China Sea.

Marcos’ remarks were in response to Beijing’s insistence in recent days that Manila had “repeatedly” promised to tow away the crumbling BRP Sierra Madre from Second Thomas Shoal in the Spratly Islands.

The BRP Sierra Madre, which the Philippines deliberately grounded in 1999 in an effort to check China’s advance in the hotly contested waters, has long been a flashpoint between Manila and Beijing.

Tensions flared at the weekend when the Philippines accused Chinese Coast Guard vessels of blocking and firing water cannon at boats on a resupply mission to a handful of Filipino marines stationed on the World War II-vintage ship.

“I’m not aware of any agreement that the Philippines should remove from its own territory its own ship, the BRP Sierra Madre, from the Ayungin Shoal,” Marcos said in a video posted on the Presidential Communications Office’s Facebook page, using the Philippine name for Second Thomas Shoal.

“And let me go further, if there does exist such an agreement, I rescind that agreement as of now,” he said.

The Chinese embassy in Manila did not respond to a request for comment about Marcos’s remarks.

The Philippine military and coast guard said six Chinese coast guard vessels and two Chinese “militia” boats were involved in Saturday’s incident.

One of the Philippine charter boats carrying supplies, including food, fuel and water, was prevented from reaching the shoal.

Another charter boat unloaded its cargo successfully.

The Philippine marines deployed on the run-down vessel depend upon resupply missions to survive their remote posting.

Beijing has defended its actions as “professional” and accused Manila of “illegal delivery of construction materials” to the grounded ship.

“The Philippine side has repeatedly made clear promises to tow away the warship illegally ‘stranded’ on the reef,” a spokesperson for China’s foreign ministry said Tuesday.

Second Thomas Shoal is about 200 kilometers (124 miles) from the Philippine island of Palawan and more than 1,000 kilometers from China’s nearest major landmass, Hainan island.

The National Task Force for the West Philippine Sea, which includes representatives of government agencies, said Monday the shoal was part of the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone and the resupply and upkeep of the BRP Sierra Madre were “legitimate Philippine government activities”.

Since taking office in June 2022, Marcos has insisted he will not let China trample on his country’s maritime rights and has also sought to strengthen defense ties with former colonial ruler and longtime ally the United States.

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