China escalated its already heightened maritime conflict with the Philippines on March 9 by blocking two Philippine vessels from delivering fresh supplies and troops to its marine outpost in the sunken ship Sierra Madre beside the Ayungin Shoal. Two days later, when the Philippines summoned China’s Charge d’Affairs in Manila to protest China’s provocation, Beijing immediately countered that it was the Philippine ships that “infringed China’s territorial sovereignty.”
A week later, on March 17, China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei revealed in a press conference in Beijing that two previous Philippine presidents had made an “unequivocal commitment to China” that the Philippines would tow away the Sierra Madre from the Ayungin Shoal. China demanded that Pres. Aquino “heed the promises” made by his predecessors otherwise, Hong Lei warned, the Philippines risks losing its “credibility.”
According to Hong Lei, the promises were made in 1999 by Pres. Joseph ”Erap” Estrada and reiterated in 2003 by Pres. Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo (GMA). Estrada and Arroyo have yet to respond to this new Chinese allegation. Did they make such commitments to China? If so, why and what did they hope to get in return?
Many observers doubt this new Chinese claim because the Ayungin Shoal did not attain any strategic value to China until after GMA entered into a Joint Marine Seismic Undertaking (JMSU) with China in 2005-2008 allowing China the authority to explore the waters within the 200 mile Exclusive Economic Zone boundaries of the Philippines around Palawan.
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