Violent resupply mission in Ayungin Shoal triggers Mutual Defense Treaty discussion

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AFP CCG Resupply mission Ayungin Shoal.jpg
A China Coast Guard (CCG) personnel is caught on camera while brandishing a pickaxe in front of an Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) soldier during a resupply mission at BRP Sierra Madre in Ayungin Shoal on June 17, 2024. (Courtesy of AFP) 

Talks about the Philippines and United States’ preparedness to invoke the Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) have been sparked anew over China’s aggressive actions during a recent resupply mission in Ayungin (Second Thomas) Shoal which led to the dismemberment of the right thumb of an elite Filipino navy trooper.

Signed in 1951, the MDT is an agreement between the governments of the Philippines and US that requires both countries to support each other in case of an attack from a third-party nation.

It was not the first time that China had prevented the resupply missions of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) but military officials said it was unprecedented for China’s coast guard (CCG) to board the resupply boats, seize and destroy the equipment of the Filipino troops – which was what happened during the June 17 resupply mission. 

The operation also saw for the very first time a severe injury inflicted on a Navy trooper, Seaman First Class Underwater Operator Jeffrey Facundo, a member of the elite Naval Special Operations Group (NAVSOG), whose right thumb was dismembered when a Chinese rigid hull inflatable boat (RHIB) intentionally rammed the boat that he was riding during the mission, according to the AFP.

Maritime security analyst Ray Powell said it would be “justified” if the Philippine government would seek an audience with the US for the start of the formal talks about the possibility of invoking the MDT over the June 17 resupply mission.

“I think the Philippines would be very well justified in requesting formal consultations with the U.S.,” Powell, director of the SeaLight Project at Stanford University’s Gordian Knot Center for National Security Innovation, told the Manila Bulletin on Thursday, June 20. 

He cited Article III of the MDT which reads: “The Parties, through their Foreign Ministers or their deputies, will consult together from time to time regarding the implementation of this Treaty and whenever in the opinion of either of them the territorial integrity, political independence or security of either of the Parties is threatened by external armed attack in the Pacific.”

“At this point it seems clear that China is very willing and able to enforce its blockade of Ayungin Shoal, and that presents a clear threat to the Philippines' territorial integrity and security,” he said.

Coincidentally, Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) Secretary Enrique Manalo spoke on the phone with US counterpart Antony J. Blinken on Wednesday, June 19, about China’s “escalatory actions” in the West Philippine Sea (WPS).

“Secretary Blinken emphasized that the PRC’s actions undermine regional peace and stability and underscored the United States’ ironclad commitments to the Philippines under our Mutual Defense Treaty,” US State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said.

However, President Marcos Jr. stated in a forum in Singapore last month that the MDT would likely be triggered if a Filipino serviceman would be killed during an armed attack by a foreign nation.

Rules of engagement

Criticisms were aplenty when initial information broke out that the unarmed elite forces of the PN’s NAVSOG were overpowered by the CCG during the recent resupply mission for troops onboard the BRP Sierra Madre (LS-57) outpost in Ayungin (Second Thomas) Shoal. It turns out that the troops have only followed the military’s rules of engagement (ROE) for such specific operation to avoid igniting a potential war in the WPS.

This was revealed by the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) after the release of photos and videos documenting the CCG’s brazen act of aggression against the PN’s Naval Special Operations Group (NAVSOG), a group of elite navy troopers who are adept in fighting at sea, on air and on land. They are the counterparts of the US Navy SEALs.

“Our soldiers acted with professionalism and full restraint [so as] not to escalate the tension or avoid the possibility of a larger armed conflict in the West Philippine Sea,” Colonel Xerxes Trinidad, chief of AFP public affairs office, said.

Trinidad could not discuss the particular ROE for the resupply mission as these were considered “operational details.”

However, Rear Adm. Alfonso Torres Jr., commander of the Palawan-based Western Command (Wescom), admitted in a press conference on Wednesday that he directed the NAVSOG troops to hide their weapons in gun cases to avoid any misconception that the resupply was an armed operation instead of a humanitarian mission.

Torres also owned up to the consequences of the mission, saying it was his idea to use AFP RHIBs to deliver the provisions to the troops. 

In previous resupply missions, the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) had deployed its ships to serve as the escort of AFP-chartered civilian resupply boats.

“It’s actually my idea,” Torres said. “It’s actually operational matters and as far as the schedule and the conduct of operation, I am taking responsibility [for] that.”

The AFP released on Wednesday night photos and videos documenting the June 17 resupply mission where two rigid hull inflatable boats (RHIBs) carrying NAVSOG personnel were swarmed by at least eight CCG RHIBs.

The AFP’s documentation showed broken cellular phone, windshield, communications and navigational equipment of a nine-meter rigid hull inflatable boat (RHIB) of the military. CCG personnel then illegally boarded the AFP boats and during the scuffle, they attached a rope to the AFP RHIBs and towed them away from the BRP Sierra Madre before the supplies could be transported to the troops onboard the outpost. 

In the middle of the sea, the CCG personnel looted the firearms and personal belongings of the NAVSOG. They destroyed the outboard motor of the AFP RHIBs and abandoned them.

In another photo, an AFP RHIB was seen deflated and damaged, and Trinidad said it was the CCG personnel who deliberately slashed it using a machete/bolo (long bladed knife), knives and pikes. The CCG personnel were caught on camera brandishing bladed and pointed weapons, and threatening to injure the AFP troops, he added.

Aside from using bladed weapons, Trinidad said that the CCG personnel also used tear gas, sirens and blinding strobe lights to “intensify chaos and confusion,” “disrupt communication,” and “impair the vision and coordination” of the Filipino soldiers.

The NAVSOG personnel, on the other hand, were unarmed as their service firearms, Colt automatic rifles (CAR)-15, were stuffed in gun cases to avoid any misconception that the resupply was an armed operation instead of a humanitarian mission.

“Our soldiers acted with professionalism and full restraint [so as] not to escalate the tension or avoid the possibility of a larger armed conflict in the West Philippine Sea,” Trinidad said.