MANILA — The United States ambassador to the Philippines apologized Friday for the grounding of an American naval ship on a pristine coral reef, the latest in a string of embarrassing incidents for the United States military in the country.
“I wish to convey to the Philippine government and people my profound regret over the grounding of the U.S.S. Guardian on Tubbataha Reef,” U.S. Ambassador Harry K. Thomas Jr. said in a statement issued Friday.
The World Heritage List of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization calls the area struck by the ship “a pristine coral reef” that is home to more than 350 species of coral and almost 500 types of fish.
“This is the collateral damage from the U.S. military presence in our country,” said Bobby Tuazon, the director of policy studies of the Manila-based Center for People Empowerment in Governance. “What were they doing there in the first place? This is a World Heritage site.”
The grounding of the ship was preceded by other incidents that have led to renewed criticism of the U.S. military presence here. On Jan. 6, fishermen in the Philippines recovered an unmanned U.S. military drone that had been lost after it was used during American military exercises near the Pacific island of Guam.
Residents on the island of Masbate were initially alarmed by the discovery, fearing that it was an armed drone similar to those used in Afghanistan. But U.S. and Philippine military quickly clarified that it was an unarmed drone used as an aerial target.
The Philippine Senate is also investigating allegations that an American government contractor dumped 189,500 liters of untreated domestic waste from a Navy ship near Subic Bay after joint exercises in October. Subic Bay, a former U.S. naval facility that is frequently visited by American ships, is also a popular Filipino tourist destination for beachgoers.
In the latest incident, the US Navy minesweeper hit the Tubbataha Reef about 80 miles east of the Philippine island of Palawan on January 17 while using faulty digital navigation charts, according to a US Navy statement. An investigation into the cause of the grounding is underway.
The full extent of the damage done to the reef by the 224-footship cannot be determined until the vessel is removed, but aerial photos taken by the Philippine military indicate that ship has put a gash in the reef measuring more than half the ship’s length.
The United States military in recent years has increased its presence in the Philippines at the invitation of President Benigno S. Aquino III. Visits by American Navy ships to Manila and Subic Bay are common, as are U.S. aircraft at Philippine Air Force bases.
The increased presence has been welcomed by some in the Philippines as a counter-balance to what is viewed by many Filipinos as aggressive actions by China in the South China Sea. The Philippines and China have multiple overlapping territorial claims in the area and the two countries have engaged in tense maritime stand-offs while asserting their sovereignty over contested areas.