Defenders of Sierra Madre

by Perry Diaz

Since 1999, a World War II-era navy ship lay aground off Ayungin Shoal (Second Thomas Shoal), an uninhabited atoll near the Kalayaan group of islands in the Spratly archipelago.

The ship, BRP Sierra Madre, was purposely grounded by the Philippine Navy to serve as an outpost in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea) after China had grabbed and occupied the Panganiban Reef (Mischief Reef) in 1995.

Since then, China had progressively fortified Panganiban Reef with permanent buildings, naval guns, and a detachment of military personnel.

To defend the Sierra Madre, a detachment of nine marines is rotated every five months. The grounded – and rusting – Sierra Madre is used as their makeshift garrison.  With no landing strip on Ayungin, the only way to bring troops and food rations to Sierra Madre is by sea.

Some years ago, China unilaterally imposed a 60-mile restricted “no entry” zone around Panganiban Reef, which is within the Philippines’ 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). That placed Ayungin Shoal, which is only 25 miles southeast of Panganiban Reef, inside the restricted “no entry” zone.

Since Ayungin Shoal is only 105 miles from Palawan, and within the Philippines’ EEZ, it would give China a geostrategic foothold on Philippine territory if China took possession of Ayungin.

And because of its strategic location, Ayungin is considered the gateway to Recto (Reed) Bank, a proven oil- and gas-rich region coveted by energy-hungry China. If China had taken Ayungin, her next logical step would be to take full control of the oil and mineral-rich Recto Bank.In early 2014, China started blockading Ayungin to put pressure on the Philippines to abandon the Sierra Madre.

On March 9, 2014, Chinese Coast Guard ships blocked two attempts by the Philippines to resupply the garrison. Three days later, the supplies were airdropped.

But the troops persevered and continued their vigilance in defending the Sierra Madre.

China’s claim
On March 13, 2014, China held a media briefing in Beijing to further her claim on Ayungin.

According to spokesperson Hong Lei, then-incoming President Joseph “Erap” Estrada made an “unequivocal commitment” to China in 1999 that the Philippines would tow away the grounded ship. Hong also said that Estrada’s successor, President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, reiterated Erap’s “solemn commitment” in 2003.

Since then, China had aggressively intruded and conducted military activities in the West Philippine Sea despite the 2016 Permanent Court of Arbitration’s ruling that debunked China’s nine-dash line claim in the West Philippine Sea.

Fast forward to 2021. China once again repeated its claim. On November 16, it sent coast guard ships to block, and it used water cannons to spray a powerful stream of water at two Philippine boats carrying supplies to troops deployed to the Sierra Madre.

The water cannon attack prompted the Philippine government to order China’s ships to back off and warned that the US-Philippine Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) covers the supply ships.

Consequently, U.S. and Philippine military officials held initial talks to assess the future of their countries’ 70-year MDT, including revising it in a possible move, which made China wary.

The 1951 treaty commits the United States and the Philippines to come to the aid of the other in case of an attack. U.S. officials have repeatedly assured their Philippine counterparts that they would honor their treaty obligations if Philippine forces, ships, and aircraft come under attack in the disputed South China Sea or anywhere in the world for that matter.

Recently, China raised the ante by demanding that the Philippines removes the grounded BRP Sierra Madre from Ayungin Shoal, saying it should “honor its commitment.” But Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said there is no such agreement.  But China said that its “position remains unchanged.”

However, there is no record that either Estrada or Macapagal-Arroyo had ever made any commitment to remove the Sierra Madre.

But granted that they made such a commitment, it was never executed during their terms of office; thus, any subsequent president can negate such commitment, which makes one wonder:

Why didn’t China force the removal of the Sierra Madre?  Was it because the MDT was and is still in force? And since the Sierra Madre is still an active commissioned Philippine warship, either party could invoke it?  Obviously, China doesn’t want to provoke Uncle Sam.

Life on the Sierra Madre
Meanwhile, life on the Sierra Madre goes on. The marines keep themselves busy by diving, fishing, and watching DVDs.

Their only communication with the outside is through a radio communication system and satellite phones. Occasionally, they have contact with Filipino fishermen who would swap DVDs with them.

What these marines are doing is over and above their normal duties and responsibilities. Under constant threat of Chinese invasion, they’re prepared to fight to death. They’re also aware that if they were attacked, they would surely perish defending their garrison.

Indeed, they’re like the Texans who defended the Alamo in 1836 in a fiercely fought 13-day battle against Mexican President General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna’s army.

Outnumbered and outgunned, the approximately 250 Texans fought the 1,500 Mexicans to the last man. Their brutal defeat inspired and rallied the Texans under Sam Houston, who went on to defeat Santa Anna a month later.

It is interesting to note that back in April 9, 2014, then President Benigno Aquino, spoke during the commemoration of Araw ng Kagitingan (Day of Valor) in Mt. Samat in Bataan.

He paid tribute to the brave marines of the Sierra Madre who are defending their nation’s sovereignty and territorial integrity just like the American and Filipino soldiers who made a heroic stand in Bataan to defend the Philippines from Japanese invasion in World War II.

“Day and night, on board the stranded BRP Sierra Madre, their dedication was anchored on keeping watch over and safeguarding our territory. This is why, together with our veterans, soldiers like them are among those we honor today. The Filipino nation salutes all of you,” Aquino told the marines.

If Gen. Douglas MacArthur were alive today, he would be smiling listening to Aquino’s praise for the marines.  After all, it was MacArthur himself who immortalized the bravery of Filipino soldiers during the Korean War when he declared: “Give me ten thousand Filipino soldiers and I will conquer the world.”

A few brave marines
But for Aquino, the nine marines are all he needed to stand guard in a remote and lonely garrison in the middle of West Philippine Sea surrounded by marauding Chinese naval vessels.

But just like the 300 Spartans who defended Thermopylae in 480 BC against the invading 150,000 Persians, the nine Filipino marines wouldn’t have a chance of surviving a Chinese assault.

But like the 250 Texan volunteers who gave their lives to defend the Alamo, and the 300 Spartan warriors who died defending Thermopylae, the nine Filipino marines defending Ayungin are ready to lay down their lives for their Inang Bayan.

These are the defenders of Sierra Madre.

PERRY DIAZ is a writer, columnist and journalist who has been published in more than a dozen Filipino newspapers in five countries.

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