MANILA, Philippines - The Armed Forces of the Philippines on Sunday said it sent a government civilian ship to Ayungin Shoal (Second Thomas Shoal) over the weekend to avoid confrontation with Chinese naval forces patrolling disputed waters in the West Philippine Sea.
Lt. Col. Ramon Zagala, AFP public affairs office chief, maintained that the mission of the civilian vessel, which figured in a two-hour standoff with two Chinese Coast Guard ships on Saturday, was to resupply Marines manning the grounded Philippine Navy ship on Ayungin Shoal and replace them with a new team of soldiers.
"The objective was just to resupply our troops. The mission is done," Zagala told the Inquirer in a phone interview.
"We sent a civilian vessel to avoid a confrontation [with the Chinese forces]. We simply want to reprovision and rotate our troops there," he said.
"We used a civilian vessel to show them our intent, which was to reprovision and rotate our personnel, and nothing more," Zagala said, adding that it was a regular mission.
Other countries with territorial claims in the South China Sea also resupply their troops, he said.
Until March 9, when the Chinese Coast Guard blocked a Philippine resupply mission to Ayungin Shoal, China never interfered in Philippine activities on the islets in the Spratly archipelago claimed by both countries.
The failed resupply mission was replaced with an airdrop, which was successful.
Outwitting the Chinese
Saturday's resupply mission was also a success, with the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) vessel, carrying provisions and Marine and Navy troops in civilian clothes, as well as a group of journalists, outwitting two Chinese Coast Guard vessels that tried to block its way to Ayungin Shoal.
Being small and with a shallow draft, the BFAR vessel manoeuvred to the shallows where the Chinese vessels, with their much bigger displacements, could not follow without the risk of running aground.
Then the BFAR vessel slipped through and proceeded to Ayungin Shoal.
Zagala declined to comment further on the incident so as not to inflame the already tense situation in the West Philippine Sea.