The loneliest outpost in the Armed Forces
Last week, the New York Times Magazine came out with an article written by Jeff Himmelman with photographs and video by Ashley Gilbertson. The two were part of a group led by Mayor Eugenio Bito-onon Jr. of the Kalayaan Island Group that covers most of the Spratlys. The mayor has a constituency of 288 voters, most of whom live on Pag-asa, the largest island in the group.
The party visited Ayungin Shoal, a submerged reef some 105 nautical miles west of Palawan and within our exclusive economic zone. The reef is home to eight Philippine Marines led by 2nd Lt. Charlie Claro, who live on a rusting World War II relic called the Sierra Madre. The article identifies the Sierra Madre as the former USS Harnett County, which was built as a landing ship tank (LST) and converted to a floating helicopter and speedboat hub during the Vietnam War. In 1976, it was turned over to the Philippine government; in 1999, the Navy grounded it on the reef.
“Of all places, the scorched shell of the Sierra Madre has become an unlikely battleground in a geopolitical struggle that will shape the future of the South China Sea and, to some extent, the rest of the world.”
The Himmelman article titled “A Game of Shark and Minnow” is quite lengthy. It is available on the Internet and for those who have the time to go through the entire piece, it is a source of much information and ideas that may help us to better appreciate the problems we face in the West Philippine Sea.
Let me just highlight some of the more interesting topics that were covered by the writer.
We have eight Marines on the Sierra Madre. Aside from Claro, they are: Staff Sgt. Joey Loresto, Sgt. Roy Yanto, Roel Sarucam, Lionel Pepito, Israel Briguera, Antonio Olayra, and Michael Navata.
“From afar, the boat hadn’t looked much different from the Chinese boats that surrounded it. But at close range, water flowed freely through holes in the hull. With the tropical sun blasting down on it, the ship was ravaged by rust. Whole sections of the deck were riddled with holes. Old doors and metal sheets dotted paths where the men walked to prevent them from plunging into the cavernous tank space below. It was hard to imagine how such a forsaken place could become a flashpoint in a geopolitical power struggle.”
The article says that “the Chinese presence at Ayungin had spooked the Philippine Navy out of undertaking its regular run to re-supply the troops there.” I take this to mean that oftentimes the men had to improvise, resorting to fishing for subsistence and survival.
“The men depend on fish—fresh, fried, dried—as their main means of physical survival. They were all undernourished and losing weight, even though eating and meal prep were the main activities on board after fishing. Asked what meal he missed most from the mainland, Yanto said, ‘Vegetables,’ without hesitation. ‘That’s more important than meat or any other kind of fish. The motto of the boat, spray-painted on the wall near the kitchen, was ‘Kumain ang gustong mabuhay’—basically: ‘If you want to live, eat’.”
What is the Chinese strategy for these islands?
Major General Zhang Zhaozhong of China’s People’s Liberation Army is quoted from an interview last May. “He described a ‘cabbage strategy,’ which entails surrounding a contested area with so many boats—fishermen, fishing administration ships, Marine surveillance ships, Navy warships—that ‘the island is thus wrapped layer by layer like a cabbage.’”
“There can be no question that the cabbage strategy is in effect now at Ayungin and has been at least since May…. Of taking territory from the Philippines, he said: ‘We should do more such things in the future. For those small islands, only a few troopers are able to station on each of them, but there is no food or even drinking water there. If we carry out the cabbage strategy, you will not be able to send food and drinking water onto the islands. Without the supply for one or two weeks, the troopers stationed there will leave the islands on their own. Once they have left, they will never be able to come back.”
“Mischief, a submerged reef similar to Ayungin and roughly twenty miles to its west, makes for an instructive example. It used to belong to the Philippines, but in 1994, the Chinese took advantage of a lull in Filipino maritime patrols and rapidly erected a stilted structure that they then made clear they were not going to leave. Slowly they turned it into a military outpost over the repeated protests of the Filipinos and now it serves as a safe harbor for the Chinese ships that patrol Ayungin and other areas.
“What China has done with Mischief, and now with Ayungin is what the journalist Robert Haddick described writing in Foreign Policy, as ‘salami slicing’ or ‘the slow accumulation of actions,’ none of which is a casus belli, but which add up over time to a major strategic change.”
Arbitration before a United Nations tribunal appears to be the only course of action available to the Philippines. But even if we win our case, there is no enforcement mechanism in place. It boils down to the old saying: “Might is right.” In the meantime, our Marines will survive until the Chinese decide to tighten the cabbage layers around Ayungin. Perhaps it is time to bring them home.
* * *
• Spotted at the Camp Aguinaldo Golf Course last Saturday all by his lonesome was Interior Secretary Mar Roxas. After hitting a bucket of balls at the driving range, he joined a twosome composed of Ronald Pactolerin and a young boy who was being tutored by the pro. It was Roxas’ first time on the fairways in more than a year, but his swing indicated that he had not lost feel of the game.
• The Philippine Military Academy Class of 1968 celebrates its Sapphire Anniversary this year with a golf tournament on Thursday, Nov. 7, to raise funds for scholarships, professorial chairs at the academy, improvement of one room at the Veterans Memorial Medical Center, and other worthwhile projects. A mini-tournament within the tournament proper involving Classes ’68, ’69, ’70, and ’71 dubbed “The Corps of ’68” will be part of the activities. The class president is Maj. Gen. Melchor P. Rosales, current head of the Federation of Philippine Amateur Senior Golfers Inc. that recently garnered nine championship trophies at the 30th Asean Senior Amateur Golf
Championship in Indonesia.