Filipino marines occupy the Sierra Madre, a World War II-era, US-built amphibious vessel owned by the Philippines' Navy and grounded on a shoal in the South China Sea. Chinese Coast Guard vessels have blocked resupply of the marines in a bid to seize control of the Ayungin Shoal. (Philippines' Government via AFP)
TAIPEI — With the eyes of the world focused either on the Russian incursion into Ukraine or the search for the missing Malaysia Airlines passenger plane, another drama that normally would be making international headlines is unfolding in the South China Sea.
On March 9, two Chinese Coast Guard cutters blocked two Philippine transport vessels carrying supplies to marines assigned to a corroding World War II-era vessel marooned on the Ayungin Shoal, known as the Renai Shoal to China.
A few days later, the Philippine military was able to resupply the unit by dropping provisions from a fixed-wing BN-2 Islander light utility aircraft, and now is vowing to send resupply vessels to challenge the Chinese Coast Guard blockade, a Philippine Navy official said.
No date was given, but the eight Philippine Marines based there are normally resupplied every month or two.
“As to resupplying our troops stationed in the said shoal, we will continue to do it in any means that we can,” he said.
“We affirm our sovereign rights over this shoal and that of the other islands, reefs and atolls in the Kalayaan Island Group within the framework of the [United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea],” said the Philippine Navy official.
He added that Manila supports the peaceful settlement of the dispute, but reinforced that the marines would be resupplied.
“Manila will do everything in its power to resupply them,” said Ian Storey, a specialist at Singapore’s Institute of Southeast Asian Studies. “A withdrawal would be a major setback for the Philippines’ policy of asserting its sovereignty claims in the South China Sea.”
The Chinese government has repeatedly demanded the removal of the derelict ship Sierra Madre since it was grounded there in 1999. The ship has served as an outpost for Philippine marines ever since. It began life in 1944 as a US Navy tank landing ship, before being transferred to South Vietnam in 1970, and then obtained by the Philippines in 1975 after the fall of Saigon.
It appears unlikely the US government will do much about the incident, having stated publicly it will not take sides in territorial disputes in the region.
“China likely calculates that we will not be willing to lend them any help,” said retired US Marine Lt. Gen. Wallace “Chip” Gregson, former assistant defense secretary for Asian and Pacific security affairs under President Barack Obama.
In terms of options for the Philippines on how to deal with the blockade, Gregson confessed there are “not many, I’m afraid.”
On March 10, the US and Philippine negotiating teams agreed on language for the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement, expected to be approved by both governments, which will allow rotational US military forces use of Philippine military facilities. According to a news release issued by the Philippines’ Department of Foreign Affairs, the agreement will respect “Philippine sovereignty, non-permanence of US troops and no US basing in the Philippines, mutuality of benefits and respect for the Philippine Constitution, including the prohibition against nuclear weapons.”
Rommel Banlaoi, chairman of the Philippine Institute for Peace, Violence and Terrorism Research (PIPVTR), said the planned signing of the pact is an “indication that the US wants to assist the Philippines in building its capability to defend its maritime claims.”
China sees the shoal as part of its larger claim to all territory within the South China Sea. Mischief Reef, occupied by China in 1995, is only 25 miles east of the shoal.
The shoal has been in China’s sights for a while, said Toshi Yoshihara of the US Naval War College. Now China’s “impressive Coast Guard buildup is tilting the maritime balance quite dramatically in its favor.”
The Chinese are not looking for a quick decisive blow at sea, Yoshihara said. “They are looking to induce operational fatigue on the part of their opponents in order to loosen their grips on the various islands ... [and] the Philippines will have a hard time keeping up.
“This is a contest of endurance,” he said. “It’s a marathon, not a sprint.”
Banlaoi, who heads PIPVTR’s Center for Intelligence and National Security Studies, agreed. While the Philippines continues to advocate for the rule of law to prevail in the South China Sea by submitting its maritime claims to international arbitration, “realities on the ground give the Philippines operational difficulties,” he said.
“Recent developments in the Ayungin Shoal are creating operational and financial pressures for the Philippines to maintain and sustain our presence there,” he said. “China is pushing the Philippines to its operational limits, allowing China to take advantage of the new situation it is creating.”
A new staff report issued by the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission suggests China’s confidence at projecting naval combat capability beyond its near seas is growing.
The report, “China’s Navy Extends its Combat Reach to the Indian Ocean,” issued March 14, indicates China’s naval and maritime tactical reach throughout the South China Sea appears complete.
The report states that in January and February, a Chinese surface action group carried out a sophisticated training exercise over 23 days spanning the South China Sea, eastern Indian Ocean and Philippine Sea.
The People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) demonstrated “proficiencies” for anti-submarine warfare, air defense, electronic warfare, expeditionary logistics and amphibious warfare.
China is developing operational concepts and proficiencies for more traditional expeditionary missions for its amphibious forces, such as raids, direct-action operations, and airfield and port seizures.
For the first time, according to the report, the PLAN transited the straits of Sundra, Lombok and Makassar. “These transits appear to be part of a concerted effort by the navy since 2013 to demonstrate its ability to ‘break through’ the First Island Chain to operate in China’s distant seas.”
The report states that China believes the US would use the First Island Chain to “encircle” or “contain” China and prevent the PLAN from operating beyond its immediate periphery.
Ironically, the report suggests the US explore the deployment of land-based anti-ship cruise missiles to “land choke points in Asia,” which is a strategy that might confirm China’s fears of encirclement.
“The strategy would require regional countries — such as Malaysia, Indonesia, Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines or South Korea — to acquire systems that could partner with US C4ISR or permit the use of US [anti-ship cruise missiles] on their territory.”
This would allow the US to challenge “China’s maritime freedom of movement in critical sea lanes in the Indian Ocean and South China Sea.” ■