Once upon a time in China (ASEAN-China Maritime Exercise 2018 Edition)

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AP Photo/Xinhua, Hu Kaibing

Since I started my military career, I have dreamed of being sent abroad on missions. Thinking about the unique experience brought about by the diverse environment, people, and culture, I can only imagine what it would be like when my time comes.

Then one ordinary day, I was doing my usual routine as the Assistant Chief of Staff for CEIS, CM6 of Civil Military Operations Group-Philippine Navy, when I was told by our Personnel officer, “Lieutenant Sison, you are going to China on an exercise as a CMO Officer.” To my surprise and disbelief, I screamed “WHAAAAT? REALLY!!??” totally forgetting I was talking to a senior officer. I immediately caught myself, and asked: “Ma’am, isn’t there a rank requirement?” I wasn’t really excited about it at that time, since I was looking forward to filing my leave to attend a church leadership workshop by the end of October.

She said, “I’ll ask if they can consider your rank. We have no more available officers to recommend at the moment.” After a couple of hours, she got back to me and gave me the strangest laugh I’d ever heard. It was at that moment I told myself, “Yeah John, you’re going to China. Of all places, boy… Of all places.” I was really torn between declining it, and taking the rarest opportunity ever: to be part of the Naval Task Group 88 set to participate in the first-ever ASEAN-China Maritime Exercise (ACMEX) 2018 in Zhanjiang, Guangdong Province, People’s Republic of China.

AP Photo/Bullit Marquez

After a series of conferences, I got my designation as the Task Group Staff for Civil Military Operations, S7. I scoured through the paperwork to see what I need to do during the exercise. I was told I just need to prepare the tarpaulin designs, ask around, and so I went on with the plans. As I was in the process, I learned that the designated Public Affairs Officer backed out, and I was the one tasked to fill the void. That shocked me down to the core. Now things are getting heavier, eh? It was a good thing that the Director, Naval Public Affairs Office himself gave me pointers and guidance on how to do my task. Last minute conferences, briefings, and preparations were done to ensure we fully understood our mission, and to seamlessly communicate with my fellow staff and officers.

The send-off ceremony was an emotion-packed activity, as it presented the contingents to the Navy leadership and their loved ones, and bade them goodbye. At that moment, with a DSLR camera in my hand, I captured those moments of separation and the hope that we would return safely.

I saw husbands kissing their wives, couples exchanging goodbyes, and kids hugging their daddies and mommies as they sent them off. With a small smile on my face, I joined my fellow contingents as they jogged towards the ship we’d call home for almost a month, the BRP Dagupan City (LS551).

Dubbed as Naval Task Group (NTG) 88, we were tasked to represent the Philippine Navy in the historic breakthrough in the Southeast Asian region: The ASEAN-China Maritime Exercise (ACMEX) 2018. This first-ever exercise between ASEAN and China, hosted both by the Republic of Singapore Navy (RSN) and the People’s Liberation Army-Navy (PLA-N), aims to synchronize the implementation of the Code of Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES), and to establish seamless communication between multilateral partners in order to promote peace in the region.

The 759 nautical-mile voyage to Zhanjiang, China is a bumpy one. The BRP Dagupan City is one of the two flat-bottom logistics ships of the same class (the other one is the BRP Bacolod City, LS550) bought by the Philippine Navy back in the 1990s. These ships can hold a huge amount of cargo and can stay out at sea for a month with neither refueling nor replenishment. With maximum speeds of eight to 10 knots (approximately 14 to 16kph) and a cruising speed of just six knots, the ship was VERY SLOW. Because of this unique characteristic, it pitches and rolls along the smallest of the waves, causing motion and sea sickness to both sea dogs and pollywogs like myself.

I managed not to throw up during the voyage to China. I would always go out on the weatherdeck to get some fresh air and sea spray. I really hated the acidic sensation down my throat, and the feeling of blood rising up to my face everytime I stayed at the mess deck to do some of my required paperwork and short video presentations.

Guided missile destroyer USS Lassen (AP Photo/Eugene Hoshiko, File)

After four days of being tossed to and fro, and rolling along the waves, we arrived safely at the most beautiful deep-water river-ports I have ever seen: The Ma Xie Naval Base. We were the last of the ships to berth, making it in time for the arrival ceremony graciously rendered by the People’s Liberation Army-Navy (PLA-N). We were warmly welcomed by the PLA-N leadership through a co-party reception they hosted, where we participated through the cultural dance presentation. It was also there where we got a chance to informally meet our ASEAN and Chinese counterparts, have a drink or two with them and enjoy each other’s company, language barriers notwithstanding.

The next day started the three-day Shore Sub-phase activities, which includes: Military sports games, exercise briefings, medical and diving operations exchanges, and open ship. The military sports games consisted of events like tug-of-war, knot-tying, shell-lifting, soccer, and basketball. Concurrently, a series of exercise briefings were conducted in order to fill any gaps in the aspect of communications, interoperability, and amplifying instructions for the upcoming Sea Sub-phase.

The Open Ship activity I planned, with the help of LS551 Operations Officer and the Deputy Commander of NTG88, had been a smashing success. I’m proud to say that the NTG88 of the Philippine Navy has the happiest Open Ship presentation ever, compared to other participants. Coupled with food-tasting and shots of local liquors on top of the ship’s tour, the visitors had a blast with the Filipino hospitality sought after everywhere.

The presence of the Philippine Navy has brought news outfits from China and other countries. It is quite amazing that most of these outfits are curious as to how the current Sino-Philippine relations will affect this exercise. I just said this: “Whatever sentiments we have, are irrelevant at the moment. We the Philippine Navy, the Naval Task Group 88, is here to perform a task, and we are here to accomplish it with flying colors.”

I can vividly remember those words I told the reporters from Singapore’s Straits Times and Channel New Asia during the interview right after we hurdled the “Open Ship,” where busload after busload of officers and men from PLA-N swarmed the hastily-prepared BRP Dagupan City a few minutes earlier than scheduled.With flying colors, we did. We successfully hurdled the Open Ship.

Little did we know that a bigger success was yet to come in the following days.

Then the Sea Sub-phase began. In the wee hours of the morning, the ship began its preparation to sail ahead of its fellow participants due to its speed. Final checks were made to ensure we were all set for the sea.

Included in this sub-phase were scenarios such as the Communications Drill, Joint Search & Rescue, PHOTOEX maneuvers, cross-deck helo ops, and replenishment at sea. The Philippine Navy’s NTG88 was tasked to lead the latter. It was in this phase that the high competence and training of Philippine Navy paid off through its sheer win in the Communications Drill.

The PN personnel, armed with guts and wits, bested out other exercise participants and seized the victory. It is a surreal feeling, knowing that we beat highly-advanced warships with what? An oversized tub? (I apologize, LS551. I honestly felt that way) Liberty? Of course we had a lot of time for that.

Well, we managed to get a chance to roam around the city. I can compare it to an upsized version of Bonifacio Global City, except that almost nobody spoke English. I tell you, that was really a pain in the butt. There was this one time I and my fellow officer from the Navy’s Nurse Corps were on the search for street foods on alleys and side streets to “experience the real Zhanjiang,” according to him.

I chanced upon a store that sells fried tofu bites. I tried to ask how much they cost, but the vendor said “no English.” “I am doomed,” I told myself. Good thing I downloaded a “Learn Chinese” app, but it didn’t have that much use.

I asked in Mandarin, “Duoshaoqian? (How much is this?),” wondering if I spoke it right. The vendor and her colleagues were already laughing at me. Exasperated, I just put the phone right in her face so just she can read what I meant to say. What I thought she told me then was “one slice for 8RMB(yuans),” I then held up my hand, flashing a “three” sign. What happened next really made me almost give up the ghost in surprise.

As I flashed my three fingers, thinking it was 8RMB apiece, the vendor suddenly pulled three plastic bags and a weighing scale. I was astonished! Reeling from the shock, I realized it was 8RMB per kilo of tofu slices! I was almost crying and laughing at the same time when I told her I need just one, waving my index finger at her. Who in the world would eat three kilos of tofu in one sitting?

After having a good laugh at ourselves, we walked the whole five kilometers between malls, munching on the delicious, fried silken tofu I bought. I am still laughing as I write this story, pulling off a wide smile on my face.

The onslaught of Supertyphoon Yutu (local name Rosita) delayed our departure. It’s kinda sad to see your fellows go, while you get left behind. Reminds me of school days where you see your friends pack up their things, and you still have to stay until God knows when. Nevertheless, we have turned that into an opportunity to further enhance our friendship with the PLA-N in a more personal level.

We engaged them through goodwill games, and made friends with both their officers and men. At this point, everything we heard about China prior to our voyage gets thrown out of the window. We saw them as fellow human beings. We might just be under different countries, different military organizations, and on opposite sides of the WPS issue, but humanity still prevails. They would’ve wanted us to stay a bit longer because of the weather forecast, and probably because they have seen how we’ve treated them despite what’s going on in the strategic level.

As we were about to leave Zhanjiang, the Commander, NTG88 could only say so much to the PLA-N Senior Captain (Commodore) for their hospitality and for attending to the extended stay of Philippine Navy contingent.

It was a subtly emotional encounter. As I witnessed the special farewell ceremony for NTG88, I could feel that the emotions I felt from the PLA-N senior captain present were genuine, despite the language barrier.

As the NTG88 came home safely, I felt that something in me had changed. I can’t put my finger on it, but I know something did. Besides the institutional knowledge on CUES, I learned to see things on a more personal level. I have felt the genuine interaction of the Chinese people, albeit their difficulty in speaking in English. I have seen a bit of how the PLA-N run their organization. I have seen how clean and orderly their naval base is.

Honestly, I felt that they’d match our warmth and hospitality.

The ASEAN-China Maritime Exercise 2018, for me, wasn’t just another exercise. It was a life-changing experience I will hold on to for the rest of my naval career. I can proudly say that “Once Upon a Time in China, the Philippine Navy made history.”




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