When Beijing reminded Manila to honor its promise to tow away a rusting naval transport vessel that ran aground on a shoal in the disputed South China Sea, Ferdinand Marcos Jr courageously said BRP Sierra Madre would remain on Ayungin Shoal.

BRP Sierra Madre is a World War II vintage Landing Ship Tank (LST), built in 1944 in Indiana and was named USS Harnett County (LSY 821).

During the Vietnam War, Washington turned over the naval transport to the South Vietnamese, which renamed it RVNS My Tho.

When Saigon fell in 1975, many South Vietnamese vessels sailed to Subic to escape capture by the Communist North Vietnamese.

The Americans transferred the ship to the Philippine Navy, which renamed it BRP Sierra Madre (LT-57).

By next year, the rusting ship will turn 80 years old, one of the longest-serving naval transport vessels in the world.

It has remained in active duty, a symbol of the country’s sovereignty in the South China Sea.

Another World War II vintage Landing Ship Tank, BRP Benguet, remains operational. It was also built in Indiana in 1944 and was named USS Daviess County (LST-692).

Similarly, Washington transferred USS Daviess County to the Philippine Navy in 1976 and renamed it BRP Benguet.

At the end of the Vietnam War, the Philippines had at least 25 LSTs, all turned over by the United States.

Only three remain. BRP Benguet, BRP Laguna, and BRP Sierra Madre, which has been converted into an outpost in the South China Sea.

China has been waiting for the ship to collapse but the Philippines has been trying to save it by reinforcing it with cement and steel.

On Aug. 5, several Chinese vessels tried to stop two wooden cargo boats from delivering food, water, fuel, and other supplies to BRP Sierra Madre.

The Chinese Coast Guard accused the Philippines of bringing in construction materials to BRP Sierra Madre, blocking the boats and using a water cannon to prevent the vessels from getting near BRP Sierra Madre.

One of the wooden boats made it though. The shallow waters around BRP Sierra Madre prevented the large Chinese vessels from following it. The other boat left after evading too much pressure from the water cannon.

The Coast Guard vessels escorting the wooden boats were stopped by China’s coast guard ships, which made dangerous maneuvers that could lead to collision.

The water cannon incident has become an international incident with Western countries, like the United States, Canada, Australia, the United Kingdom, France, and Germany issuing statements condemning China’s actions.

China defended itself, insisting it has sovereignty over the area and accusing the Philippines of violating an informal code of conduct signed in Phnom Penh in 2002.

It reminded the Philippines of an earlier promise to remove the rusting ship on Ayungin Shoal.

Ferdinand Marcos Jr said he was unaware of any deal between China and the Philippines to tow away BRP Sierra Madre. And if there was indeed an agreement, he was rescinding it.

Those were tough words. True to his words, Marcos would not allow an inch of the country’s territory to be ceded to a third country, not even to an emerging superpower like China.

Was there an agreement made with China to remove BRP Sierra Madre from Ayungin Shoal?

No one knows and no one remembers.

However, there was a precedent in November 1999, when the Philippines towed BRP Benguet from Scarborough Shoal.

In 1995, the Philippines was shocked to discover that China had occupied a half-submerged Mischief Reef in the Spratlys in the disputed South China Sea.

A young air force pilot, Raul del Rosario, discovered a makeshift structure on the reef during one of his routine flights in 1995.

The makeshift structure has expanded into an artificial island with a 3-kilometer airfield and secured ports.

When Orlando Mercado became defense secretary, he planned to strengthen the country’s claims on the South China Sea by building lighthouses and deliberately beaching old transport ships on the disputed reefs and shoals.

No lighthouses were built but two ships – BRP Sierra Madre and BRP Benguet – ran aground in Ayungin Shoal and Scarborough Shoal, respectively.

But the Philippines was forced to tow away BRP Benguet from Scarborough Shoal when Beijing threatened to cancel a visit to Manila by Premier Zhu Rongji in November 1999.

The Philippines kept BRP Sierra Madre in Ayungin Shoal. No one knows if there was an agreement to remove the ships.

Mercado had a heated argument with the Department of Foreign Affairs, which wanted to appease China to save Zhu’s visit. The DFA prevailed.

If the DFA struck a deal with China, no one knows. DFA officials are mum about the incident almost a quarter of a century ago.

But that was not important. What matters are the events today and in the future.

Marcos’ courageous stand on BRP Sierra Madre is laudable. He is just honoring an oath he had taken as president of the country – to defend and protect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Republic.

If Rodrigo Duterte was still president, perhaps, he could have agreed to remove BRP Sierra Madre from Ayungin Shoal.

The country needs patriotic leaders who will stand up for the Philippines, for its rights as a sovereign and independent nation.

Let’s avoid another Duterte from rising to power. Another Duterte can sell out the country to China.