AN AERIAL VIEW shows the BRP Sierra Madre on the contested Second Thomas Shoal, locally known as Ayungin, in the South China Sea, March 9, 2023. — REUTERS

By Kyle Aristophere T. Atienza, Reporter

THE UNITED STATES Navy deployed its aircraft to monitor the Philippines’ resupply mission to its troops manning the grounded and dilapidated BRP Sierra Madre in Second Thomas Shoal (Ayungin Shoal) of the South China Sea last week, amid an increasingly aggressive presence of Chinese vessels in the area.

In a televised news briefing, Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) Spokesman Medel M. Aguilar said they were “aware” that assets from the US Navy were monitoring the resupply mission, which China tried to block through dangerous maneuvers.

“I am aware other countries are monitoring. They are helping us… in increasing the level of our monitoring for maritime domain awareness,” he said. “These assets belong to countries such as the United States.”

On Friday, Chinese Coast Guard (CCG) and maritime militia vessels maneuvered dangerously close to two Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) vessels escorting boats contracted by the Philippine Navy to deliver food and other supplies for troops stationed on the World War II-era ship deliberately grounded in the shoal.

In the course of that incident, reports said that a P-8A Poseidon reconnaissance plane from the US Navy was spotted overhead. A Black Hawk helicopter and an unidentified white aircraft were also seen.

But the presence of the Poseidon plane was not coordinated with the PCG.

“On the part of the Philippine Coast Guard, we are not aware (of the US Navy deployment). We never made a coordination with the US government to carry out this overflight as the resupply operation was ongoing,” PCG spokesperson for the West Philippine Sea Jay Tarriela told CNN Philippines.

China, on the other hand, deployed intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities during the resupply mission, in an apparent attempt to boost its South China Sea narrative, Mr. Aguilar said.

“We also monitored the entry of China’s ISR capability — perhaps for their narrative when they talk to their people… because for now, what is dominating the environment are those that are coming directly from sources other than China,” he added.

Geopolitical analysts said the presence of US assets during the resupply mission is a welcome development, noting that it might have helped tame China’s aggression.

A US aircraft was also seen during the successful Aug. 22 resupply mission, which was a follow-up activity after only one of the two resupply boats was able to deliver items to BRP Sierra Madre on Aug. 5 due to China’s dangerous maneuvers and use of water cannons.

“The success of the Philippines’ resupply mission on Sept. 8 can also be attributed to the presence of US Navy aircraft as China sees the presence of its rival in the contested waterways,” Chester B. Cabalza, founder of Manila-based International Development and Security Cooperation, said in a Facebook Messenger chat.

“This is a positive and welcome step that illustrates both allies working and coordinating together quite effectively in such critical areas,” Don Mclain Gill, who teaches foreign relations at the De La Salle University, said via Messenger chat.

Mr. Gill said normalizing such presence may “not only establish cooperation as a norm in the West Philippine Sea but also a precedent for more comprehensive kinds of coordination during resupply missions.”

Last week, before the Sept. 8 mission was made known to the public, Defense Secretary Gilberto “Gibo” Teodoro, Jr. said the US Navy aircraft have been conducting freedom of navigation operations on their own.

The US and its allies, including Australia, have increased their presence in the Indo-Pacific region amid an increasingly belligerent China, which has ramped up its aggression in Philippine waters through provocative actions that stop short of a war.

Last week, Australian Prime Minister (PM) Anthony Albanese signed a strategic partnership agreement with Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos, Jr. during his visit to Manila.

The strategic partnership deal helps ensure “peace in the Indo-Pacific, amid continuing security challenges particularly in the West Philippine Sea,” Stratbase ADR president Victor Andres C. Manhit said in a statement.

Mr. Albanese’s visit — the first by an Australian PM in two decades — “is a landmark initiative that highlights the central geopolitical value of the Philippines in the Indo-Pacific region,” he added.

The US and Australia, along with several other countries, have vowed to make the Indo-Pacific region “free and open” amid what they describe as authoritarian threats.

The two countries, in particular, have been worried about China’s aggression in the South China Sea, which is believed to contain massive oil and gas deposits and through which billions of dollars in trade passes each year.

China claims the South China Sea almost in its entirety using a 1940s map that a United Nations-backed tribunal said has no basis, placing itself in conflict with the Philippines, an American treaty ally, and three other ASEAN members — Malaysia, Brunei, and Vietnam.

Beijing recently released a 2023 version of its standard map, featuring a 10-dash line, whose predecessor, a 9-dash line, has been invalidated by the Permanent Court of Arbitration after Manila filed a protest in 2016.