Philippine ship is unlikely outpost that angers China | ET REALITY


For more than two decades, it has been an unlikely flashpoint in the South China Sea: a rusting World War II ship stranded on a small reef that has become a symbol of Filipino resistance against Beijing.

The Philippine government ran the ship aground in 1999 on Second Thomas Shoal, a disputed reef 120 miles off the coast of the western province of Palawan.

The dilapidated warship, known as the Sierra Madre, will never sail again. But she has remained there ever since, an indicator of the Philippines’ claim to the shoal and an effort to prevent China from seizing more disputed waters.

On Friday, a New York Times reporter was among a group given rare access to a resupply mission in the Philippines, first boarding a Coast Guard cutter (the BRP Cabra) and then an inflatable boat to arrive. 1,000 yards from the Sierra Madre.

The Philippines has presented its fight against China as a David and Goliath fight. After multiple clashes in recent years, the Philippine Coast Guard has begun inviting journalists on missions to resupply the handful of people left in the Sierra Madre. It is part of a public relations strategy to show the world how Beijing is asserting its power in the South China Sea.

This mission was the closest a civilian has been to the ship in more than a year, since China intensified its blockade of the sandbar.

Around midnight, the Cabra was 16 nautical miles from the Sierra Madre when four Chinese ships began following it.

When the sun rose around 6am, the game of cat and mouse immediately began. The Chinese ships boxed in the Goat, forcing the ship to maneuver its way out. This happened at least two more times.

The ships repeatedly challenged each other by radio. At one point, at least 15 Chinese ships had gathered, triple the number of Filipino ships.

“You are a State party to UNCLOS,” a Filipino officer aboard the Cabra radioed to a Chinese ship, referring to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, the international agreement that governs marine and maritime activities. . “Your actions are illegal. Stop your activity or face the consequences of your action.”

“Stop the operation and leave the maritime zone immediately,” the Chinese responded by radio.

The Cabra’s captain, Emmanuel Dangate, was on his eighth resupply mission. That day he had been ordered to come within three nautical miles of the sandbar.

A few times, Captain Dangate ordered his crew to move the ship at full speed. They did so, shouting at him the updated speeds of the Cabra and the nearby Chinese ships.

A Chinese coast guard boat crossed the Cabra’s bow at least twice. When the ship was just a few meters away, the radar system turned red, warning of the danger of a collision.

After about two hours, the Goat finally inched closer to the mouth of the sandbar, still surrounded by Chinese ships. Captain Dangate said it was the closest he had been to the military post. Throughout the trip, a U.S. Navy Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft flew overhead.

Later that day, the Philippines lodged a protest with China over what it described as “unprovoked acts of coercion.” A spokesman for China’s Foreign Ministry, Wang Wenbin, said the Philippine ships had “invaded” the waters, “violating China’s sovereignty.” He added that Beijing had protested the measures and that the Chinese Coast Guard had taken “necessary measures to enforce the law.”

The episode was part of a broader pattern that has been developing in the South China Sea for years. China has repeatedly harassed Philippine ships attempting to resupply naval troops guarding the Sierra Madre. Every mission risks turning into a broader conflict.

Since the beginning of the year, the Chinese coast guard has deployed a water cannon, aimed a military-grade laser and collided with Philippine vessels. The United States condemned the actions and pledged to help the Philippines, its oldest treaty ally in the Indo-Pacific, in the event of an armed attack.

China says Manila previously agreed to tow the Sierra Madre, a claim that President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. of the Philippines disputes. The Philippines maintains that it is within its rights to repair the ship, a Navy ship commissioned in its own territory.

In 2016, an international court ruled that the Second Thomas Shoal, called Ayungin Shoal in the Philippines, is less than 200 nautical miles from Palawan and is therefore part of the country’s exclusive economic zone. China, which claims 90 percent of the South China Sea, has rejected the ruling.

“It’s like a basketball game,” said Rommel Jude G. Ong, a professor at the Ateneo de Manila School of Government and a retired rear admiral in the Philippine Navy. “Raise your guard so they can’t advance. So that’s our guard post there, to control the advance.”

But decades of leaving the Sierra Madre exposed to the elements have worn down the boat. In 2018, the Philippine government commissioned a study to examine its viability and concluded that it only had two years left intact, according to Ong.

“Our projection was wrong, it still stands,” he said. “But you can’t fight physics and you can’t fight Mother Nature. At some point, he will be decrepit enough that he will not be able to support himself.”

At the bottom of the Sierra Madre you could see huge holes; The tires were used as weights against the wind. Aluminum boards and sheets served as makeshift doors and windows. On Friday morning, some crew members were bathing outside on deck, drawing water stored in blue containers.

Philippine officials fear that when the ship falls apart, China will swoop in to claim the sandbar, a submerged reef rich in fish and serving as a gateway to an area believed to contain vast reserves of oil and natural gas. That could also mean a possible Chinese advance on Palawan, the site of a new military base to which the United States recently gained access.

Gen. Romeo J. Brawner, head of the Philippine armed forces, has proposed conducting joint patrols of the Second Thomas Shoal with other countries, a move that could further inflame tensions. In August he said the government was considering redevelopment of the Sierra Madre, although he did not provide details.

Manila has few good options. Building an entirely new military outpost could take months and would require transporting large quantities of construction materials that could be avoided with a Chinese blockade. The government even considered building a structure inside the Sierra Madre, said Ong, who compared it to the outer shell of an egg that breaks “with a chick inside.”

Quezon City Municipal Councilor Ethel Olid introduced a resolution urging all cities in Palawan to donate approximately $10,000 each for the rehabilitation of the Sierra Madre. That measure was approved in August.

“It is a sad state of affairs for one of the remaining military outposts in the West Philippine Sea,” Mr. Olid said. “If we let it go or collapse, we will lose Ayungin Shoal and our layer of defense.”

On Friday morning, as the Philippine supply ships approached the sandbar, the Chinese ships abandoned the chase. The Philippine military was able to board the Sierra Madre with food and fuel.

A tall concrete structure stood at one end of the ship, with rooms that appeared to be unfinished. Above it was a steel pole connected with cables, cameras and a satellite dish. On the other side, the Philippine flag fluttered in the wind.

Sui-Lee Wee contributed with reports.

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