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Proposals to fortify Ayungin weighed

BUILDING a forward operating base, much less undertaking major repairs on the dilapidated BRP Sierra Madre, in the Ayungin Shoal will depend on how far the Philippines and its ally, the United States, are willing to risk it, since China appears committed to enforcing a blockade of the shoal, according to a defense and security expert.

Raymond Powell, SeaLight director at the Gordian Knot Center for National Security Innovation, told The Manila Times on Monday that the primary issue is how to get a new structure built that will replace the Philippine Navy ship that was intentionally grounded in Ayungin in 1999.

The Sierra Madre has been serving as living quarters for Philippine troops stationed at Ayungin.

«China will certainly oppose such a move, so the Philippines, together with its American treaty ally, would have to consider how far it is willing to go to carry out such a plan,» Powell said.

Chinese ships have become more aggressive in confronting Philippine ships resupply missions to troops stationed on the Sierra Madre, using water cannons, and carrying out dangerous blocking maneuvers.

The idea to build a forward operating base, or FOB, in Ayungin was first floated in September by Indo-Pacific maritime security expert and former US Navy intelligence officer, Blake Herzinger, who proposed to replace the derelict ship «with a permanent structure manned by combined rotational forces from both the Philippines and the US Marine Corps.»

Herzinger acknowledged that an FOB in Ayungin would be a provocative move, but it would be a strong indication of the willingness of the US to take on the risk as an ally of the Philippines.

In November, an enhancement of the proposal was raised, with foreign media reporting that Manila was receiving «advice» from Washington on how to conduct repairs on the Sierra Madre.

The Manila-based think tank Asian Century Philippines Strategic Studies Institute (ACPSSI) doubts if Beijing will ever allow the delivery of large-scale construction materials to build a stronger outpost in Ayungin.

Herman Tiu Laurel, ACPSSI president, said «forcing through» with building an FOB in the shoal «will test the limits of China's tolerance and invite a