Under China’s shadow, Philippines clings to rusty maritime outpost

Recent developments have drawn the world’s attention to an unlikely symbol of Philippine sovereignty in the South China Sea – a dilapidated WWII warship – as China increases pressure and Manila struggles to keep it there. his position.

The BRP Sierra Madre ran aground on the Second Thomas Shoal, or Ayungin Shoal as it is known in the Philippines, in 1999. It serves as a Philippine military outpost in the disputed waters. After 22 years, all that’s left is a skeleton of rusty scrap metal.

Philippine government insists shoal is part of continental shelf over which Philippines has sovereign rights and jurisdiction, but China says it is “part of the Nansha Qundao (Spratly Islands) of China” and demands “that the Philippine side honor its commitment and withdraw its illegally stranded vessel. “

The shoal is what is called a low-water shoal – meaning it is a naturally formed area of ​​land that is above water and surrounded by water at low tide but submerged at high tide. It lies 105 nautical miles west of the Philippine island province of Palawan – well within the Philippines’ 200 nautical mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ).

Tensions around the shoal have intensified since November 16, when Chinese Coast Guard vessels blocked and fired water cannons at two Filipino boats to prevent them from supplying the marine team stationed on the Sierra Madre. .

This sparked strong protests from Manila and its ally the United States, who threatened that the incident would trigger the 1951 US-Philippine Mutual Defense Treaty. A week later, the resupply mission was finished under the gaze of nearby China.

But uncertainty remains as to the future of the Sierra Madre and whether the Philippines will be able to maintain its presence in Second Thomas Shoal for long.

File photo showing Filipino Marines aboard the BRP Sierra Madre and mocking local journalists visiting the South China Sea on March 29, 2014, after Chinese Coast Guard vessels attempted to block a vessel from refueling. Credit: Reuters

“Humanitarian considerations”

The 100-meter-long BRP Sierra Madre, originally the USS LST-821 and later the USS Harnett County, was a tank landing ship built for the US Navy during World War II. He also served in the Vietnam War and was transferred to the Philippines in 1976 and renamed for the third time.

It was believed to be on its way to the Scarborough Shoal, another feature located in the Philippine EEZ, when it struck an underwater reef and ran aground in May 1999.

Some say it was an accident, but Manila says the ship “was placed to serve as the Philippine government’s permanent facility in response to China’s illegal occupation of Mischief Reef in 1995”. Mischief Reef is another feature of the Spratly Islands within the Philippine EEZ.

Beijing, however, has claimed Philippine authorities have promised to take back the ship and have repeatedly called for the Sierra Madre to be pulled. China also said that “the delivery of food and other supplies is a temporary and special arrangement on humanitarian grounds” for the eight or so Filipino navies there.

The first time the Chinese Coast Guard intervened to prevent ships from regularly resupplying and rotating Philippine troops on the shoal was in March 2014, as they suspected they were carrying cargo. construction materials.

“This is because the Sierra Madre is collapsing and the armed forces want to fortify the ship. It is in China’s best interest to see the ship collapse so the Marines have to withdraw and that China can intervene, “said Ian Storey, senior. Fellow at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore.

“Another option for China would be to block the bench and starve the Marines to surrender,” Storey said.

While most observers agree that the Philippines will not give in to China’s demand to suppress the Sierra Madre, it is a war Manila is struggling to win.

“The Chinese can block the resupply to the Sierra Madre at any time, and they can choose how much to escalate the conflict and if and when to defuse it,” said Zachary Abuza, professor at the National War College in Washington, DC.

“The Philippines has no resources – fiscal or otherwise – to reclaim the territory. And China would never allow wholesale reclamation work to start, ”Abuza said.

“As such, the best the Philippines can do is hope that BRP Sierra Madre doesn’t rust and disintegrate faster than it already is. The poor Filipino Marines are living in a death trap, and I sincerely hope they are up to date with their tetanus vaccines, ”he added.

File photo showing Filipino Marines in the communications room of BRP Sierra Madre, March 29, 2014. Credit: Reuters
File photo showing Filipino Marines in the communications room of BRP Sierra Madre, March 29, 2014. Credit: Reuters

America’s dilemma

One of the worst possible scenarios, according to Abuza, is that during a monsoon, China comes to “rescue” the Philippine navies for humanitarian purposes.

“It would be a ‘non-kinetic’ way of removing the Philippines from second Thomas Shoal, and a way that would provoke little international reaction,” he said.

“Or the Chinese navy could just tow the Sierra Madre off the reef, which the Philippine navy would be hard-pressed to prevent unless the government invokes the mutual defense treaty with America,” Storey said.

In this case, the United States would face a very difficult dilemma.

“I think a Chinese attempt to grab second Thomas Shoal would certainly generate some sort of American response,” said Malcolm Davis, senior analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.

“Failure by the United States to act in these circumstances would undermine its credibility not only in the eyes of the Philippines, but would also encourage concerns that the United States would not support its allies, a concern that has since grown. Afghanistan, ”he said. , referring to the United States’ brutal withdrawal from the Central Asian nation earlier this year.

“So I guess the United States would deploy naval forces to prevent such an attack and increase the potential cost for Beijing to act, but the question would be how Beijing challenged that response,” Davis added.

The Australian analyst argued that “it is also important to note that there is a Taiwanese dimension to this, and if the United States does not act in favor of the Philippines, it could encourage Beijing to be more aggressive. against Taiwan, resulting in a much more serious problem. crisis earlier.

In recent months, China has increased pressure on democratic Taiwan, another potential flashpoint for the conflict between the superpowers. Beijing claims that the autonomous island is part of China, although Taiwan considers itself a sovereign state.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte pictured sitting at Villamor Air Force Base in Pasay, Metro Manila, Philippines on February 28, 2021. Credit: Reuters
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte pictured sitting at Villamor Air Force Base in Pasay, Metro Manila, Philippines on February 28, 2021. Credit: Reuters

Sea of ​​peace, stability and prosperity ‘

The second Thomas Shoal is claimed by China, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam, but to date tensions have largely remained between Manila and Beijing.

On weekends, in a speech at the 13th Asia-Europe Virtual Summit (ASEM) Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte said that “true peace cannot be achieved if the strong continue to trample on the weak”.

“The South China Sea must remain a sea of ​​peace, stability and prosperity, where the vital interests of stakeholders inside and outside the region are recognized and respected,” Duterte said, calling on all countries “to adhere to the rule of law”. in particular the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

It was under the Duterte administration that the Philippines pursued a policy of rapprochement with China and “the two sides worked together to contain their differences in the South China Sea,” said Zhang Baohui, professor of political science at the ‘Lingnan University of Hong Kong. .

While admitting that he is “quite surprised to see this problem (Thomas Shoal’s second incident) resurface between China and the Philippines,” said anyone in the race to look gentle. this subject.

Discussions were held in Manila on how to strengthen and defend the BRP Sierra Madre. Some have suggested building a structure around it to support it, in the same way Vietnam fortifies its remote outposts in the South China Sea.

Last Friday, Senator Panfilo Lacson, head of the Philippine Senate Defense and National Security Committee, tabled a resolution in which he proposed to refurbish the ship and deploy another on the shoal.

Lacson also urged the government to “fortify, amplify and improve our positions in the Western Philippine Sea through defense and security agreements with other nations.”

However, according to Zhang, a solution may have to wait until after the election.

“If the next administration tries to model its Chinese policy on Duterte’s, then the two sides may be able to come to a compromise. If, however, the next president leans towards an uncompromising policy towards China, he or she could seek to re-establish security cooperation with the United States to strengthen the (Philippine) position in the South China Sea, ”Zhang said. .

“This would certainly lead to heightened conflict with China over the second Thomas Shoal and the Scarborough Shoal,” he predicted.

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