Crossing a red line at Ayungin Shoal

Crossing a red line at Ayungin Shoal

/ 05:10 AM February 21, 2024

For some time now, the South China Sea has been viewed as a major flashpoint in the region following numerous incidents involving various claimant states, including the Philippines and China.

Associate Southeast Asian nations foreign ministers early this year expressed concern over the rising tensions, and called on all parties to exercise restraint and pursue a peaceful resolution of disputes in the region. The situation could get even more heated in light of the Philippine government’s plans to improve facilities on Philippine-occupied features in the West Philippine Sea.

While these plans have been floated around for some time, a significant development is that the Philippine legislature has allocated funding to construct a structure on Ayungin Shoal as revealed in a media interview in December by Sen. Sonny Angara, who chairs the Senate finance committee. It did not take long for China to respond to this news. On Dec. 29, China’s foreign ministry spokesperson Mao Ning warned that Beijing would “respond resolutely” if a permanent structure were built on the shoal, adding that establishing a “permanent base” there would “seriously infringe China’s sovereignty.”


This warning and threat clearly indicate that China considers such action by the Philippines as crossing a red line. Water cannons, military lasers, ramming, dangerous maneuvers that jeopardize safety and lives at sea, swarming tactics, regular harassment of Filipino fishermen—China has done all these, so what else would a “resolute response” entail? Boarding Philippine Coast Guard ships, cyberattacks, weaponizing trade, sinking a Philippine vessel?


It is difficult to predict how China would react if and when we cross that particular red line that it has defined as a matter of the Philippines building a more permanent structure on Ayungin Shoal. The risk is that it could lead to an escalation of an already testy situation, with dire consequences not only for the Philippines but the region as well.

So, should we cross that red line? To answer that question, we must look at the issue not from China’s point of view but from ours, taking our national interest in consideration.

If China has a red line regarding Ayungin Shoal, then we should have one, too, and this should be the reference point from which our policymakers and political leadership base their decision on those planned facilities on Ayungin Shoal. It may not be articulated directly, but if we look closely at our policies, strategy, and actions, one can make a confident guess that our red line is preventing China from establishing a permanent presence on this shoal.

Keeping the outpost on the BRP Sierra Madre vessel on that shoal is vital to Philippine national security interests and sovereignty. China’s determined efforts to disrupt resupply missions to that outpost further reinforce this point. The need to improve the facilities on the shoal is a critical objective. However, to achieve that objective, we would need to cross China’s red line.

Here’s another factor to consider in weighing the merits and pitfalls of such an action: If we “respect” China’s red line, it would just be a matter of time before BRP Sierra Madre is sunk. It would be foolish of us to assume that China won’t move in to establish its own structure on that shoal as it has done in other parts of the South China Sea. When they do, how are we going to stop that? With diplomatic protests, water cannons, military cannons swarming? We don’t have the capability and capacity to do much to prevent that scenario from happening, and we just might end up with a Chinese military facility less than 200 miles from the western coast of Palawan.

I say we do what is needed to protect our sovereignty and national interest. If red lines have to be crossed in relation to Ayungin Shoal, then better that we cross theirs rather than China crossing ours. It will not be an easy decision to make as it is fraught with risk and uncertainty, but it is one that will have to be done sooner rather than later.



Moira G. Gallaga served three Philippine presidents as presidential protocol officer and was posted as a diplomat at the Philippine Consulate General in Los Angeles, and the Philippine Embassy in Washington.

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TAGS: Ayungin Shoal, opinion, South China Sea

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