An activist holds an anti-China placard during a protest in front of the Chinese consular office in Manila following a confrontation between Chinese ships and Philippine fishermen. (Agence France-Presse)
TAIPEI — China’s maritime mastery of the South China Sea appears unstoppable. On March 9, Chinese coast guard vessels turned back two Philippine cargo ships attempting to resupply troops based on an eroding WW II-era vessel marooned on the Ayungin Shoal, known as the Renai Shoal to China.
The BRP Sierra Madre was grounded on the shoal sometime in 1999 where it has served as an outpost for Philippine troops and a visible symbol of Manila’s territorial claim to the shoal.
Unable to resupply by sea, the Philippines was able to resupply by air in midweek with a fixed-wing BN-2 Islander light utility aircraft. China claims the ships were carrying more than supplies, and were actually loaded with construction materials for building a larger station on the shoal.
It is unclear whether Manila will be able to maintain the small force of Philippine Marines on the derelict vessel.
Sam Bateman, a specialist on the South China Sea, said China has the capabilities, both naval and coast guard, to prevent resupply by sea of the troops.
“Manila can do nothing more than continue to resupply its small garrison on the shoal by air,” he said.
Bateman, a fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Singapore, said the presence of two Philippine vessels suggests their mission was more than just resupply, and “they were probably going to support some activity to construct a more permanent facility on the shoal.”
If so, this would have been contrary to the ASEAN-China 2002 Declaration on Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, Bateman said.
Since 1999, Beijing has repeatedly demanded that Manila tow away the vessel from the shoal, said Wang Dong, director, School of International Studies, Center for Northeast Asian Strategic Studies, Peking University, Beijing.
Wang said that Manila was responsible for the recent crisis when it sent ships carrying construction materials to the shoal in an “effort to beef up its presence on the shoal by trying to consolidate its dilapidated naval vessel.” He said Manila intentionally triggered the crisis in an effort to “cement US commitment and aid” from both Tokyo and Washington.
Though the Philippines is a US mutual defense partner, Washington could have its hands tied. US diplomats have repeatedly made clear to all parties that the US would take no side on territorial disputes in the South China Sea.
China’s use of coast guard vessels to enforce Beijing’s territorial claims is a “brilliant strategy as it lowers the tension threshold,” said Ian Storey, an ASEAN specialist at Singapore’s Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.
Sources indicate China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy has remained on the horizon, literally, in many of the territorial disputes with regional neighbors.
Some may view the use of coast guard vessels to front China’s maritime expansionism campaign as trickery, but Wang said the Philippines used the diversion of the May 1999 US aerial bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade as an opportunity to ground the Sierra Madre.
However, it is unclear exactly when the vessel was grounded in that year.
One approach might be to send US Coast Guard cutters to the Philippines “temporarily to begin to train” their coast guard, said Larry Wortzel, a senior member of the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission. “There should also be a US Navy presence in the background … [and] US and Philippine Coast Guard ships would begin training in the area” of the shoal.
However, for the US to provide active support to the Philippines would only add to “ambiguity in the American position and the strategic distrust that currently exists between Washington and Beijing,” Bateman said. The US simply “does not have a dog in this fight,” and “it would be extremely foolish for the US to contemplate any operational support for the Philippines.”