The Philippine Navy managed to get its stranded flagship, the BRP Gregorio del Pilar, off Half Moon Shoal on Monday night, but the dignity of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) remains firmly aground.
The 51-year-old frigate, a former United States Coast Guard cutter the US sold in 2011 as surplus, earlier this year was refitted with state-of-the-art radar — although apparently not sonar.
The BRP Gregorio del Pilar ran aground late on August 29 while on patrol in the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ), in an area also claimed by China.
Colonel Noel Detoyato, chief of AFP Public Affairs explained shortly afterwards that the frigate’s starboard side struck a submerged land feature, causing no casualties among the crew of 100 and leaving the ship’s hull and propellers with only minor damage. The ship, however, could not move for several days.
Gregorio del Pilar not the first impaled on Hasa Hasa Shoal
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Two commercial tugboats spent almost 10 hours on Monday extricating the BRP Gregorio del Pilar from the shoal, pulling it completely free just before midnight.
The frigate was inspected on the scene in preparation for towing it to Subic Bay to undergo repairs.
Half Moon Shoal, which the Philippines calls Hasa Hasa Shoal, seems to have a habit of entrapping large warships. What happened to the BRP Gregorio del Pilar last week also happened to a Chinese frigate in 2012.
According to Western diplomatic sources quoted in the Sydney Morning Herald on July 13 of that year, the so-named No. 560, a Jianghu-class frigate, ran aground several days earlier and had become “thoroughly stuck”.
The government of the nearby Philippines offered assistance, but China declined.
“We have to hear from them what happened,” Brigadier General Elmer Amon, the AFP’s deputy regional commander, told the Associated Press shortly after the Chinese stranding. “If it is in distress, we’re always ready to provide any assistance.”
What made the 2012 incident embarrassing for China was the location of the shoal that had the Chinese frigate snared: It is both inside the Philippines’ EEZ and within the area encompassed by the so-called Nine Dash Line that Beijing uses to claim sovereignty over most of the South China Sea.
The grounding happened at an awkward time, only days after high-level meetings between China and Asean called to discuss the territorial dispute ended inconclusively. As well, the No. 560 had been reported on previous occasions as having harassed fishing boats and other vessels from the Philippines in the surrounding waters.
Chinese help not needed
One of the things that made the latest grounding embarrassing for the Philippines in turn was that Manila had to field an offer of help from the Chinese Foreign Ministry, after it formally informed Beijing of the incident to “avoid misunderstanding”. Simultaneously it was fielding numerous questions about why Chinese ships were hanging about in the Philippines’ EEZ.
A Chinese Coast Guard cutter, the Zhongguohaijing 3402, had seen BRP Gregorio del Pilar on Half Moon Shoal on Sunday morning.
Colonel Noel Detoyato declared on September 1 that no Chinese vessels were assisting in the recovery of the BRP Gregorio del Pilar and that the Philippine Navy was capable of retrieving its own frigate. He added that all ships have the right to sail through the area.
“Those are international waters,” Colonel Detoyato said, adding “there’s freedom of navigation.”
Meanwhile, Philstar Global reported that the unnamed captain of the BRP Gregorio del Pilar and other officers of the frigate would be taken off duty.
“They are relieved – and will be subjected to an investigation. That’s an SOP [standard operation procedure] in the navy,” Philstar’s source said.
The official Philippine News Agency reported on September 1 that a team formed by naval flag officer-in-command Vice Admiral Robert Empedrad had begun investigating the incident by boarding the BRP Gregorio del Pilar on Saturday while it was still aground.
Feature video update defense
- Massive effort to remove Navy flagship from shoal (Manila Bulletin)
- China sends vessels to help retrieve grounded PH navy ship: report (ABS-CBN News)
- Navy to probe grounding of BRP Gregorio Del Pilar (Politiko)
- Goodbye Panatag Shoal, hello Huangyan Dao? (HD video) *updated (AEC News Today)
- War: Philippines says it will fight if ‘red line’ crossed… With what? (video) (AEC News Today)