South China Sea: Why the Philippines has been occupying a rusty ship in its dispute with China since 1999

This article first appeared on n-tv.

South China Sea: Why the Philippines has been occupying a rusty ship in its dispute with China since 1999

This article first appeared on

In 1999, the Philippines intentionally ran aground the BRP Sierra Madre on a reef off Second Thomas Shoal. Since then, small delegations from the Philippine Navy have occupied the former US Army landing ship from the Vietnam War. The only reason? The government in Manila wants to secure its claims in the South China Sea - and send a clear signal to China. Since 1995 units of the People's Liberation Army have been occupying the nearby Mischief Reef. The leadership in Beijing is also laying claim to the Second Thomas Shoal.

No marine region is as controversial as the South China Sea. Several countries lay claim to the body of water - China, Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei, the Philippines. This is mainly due to the huge deposits of oil and natural gas on the sea floor. However, the area between the island of Borneo and China's east coast is also important militarily in the event of a Chinese attack on Taiwan. And the waterway is the busiest in the world: more than half of all goods shipped annually are transported through the South China Sea.

The area is a geostrategic hotspot and the scene of numerous skirmishes between various neighboring countries. For example, earlier this week the Chinese Coast Guard blocked passage to the Second Thomas Shoal near the Spratly Islands for two Filipino ships. The atoll is about 200 kilometers west of the Philippine island of Palawan.

The blockade was over after five hours. The Chinese Coast Guard allowed the Philippine ships to pass through for "humanitarian reasons". Food and other essentials could be transported to the "illegal ship," the (armed?) Chinese seafarers told the Filipinos by radio.

The response from the Philippine Coast Guard is clear. The Chinese coast guard is located "in the exclusive economic zone of the Philippines". The actions "affect the relationship between the two countries," she said over the radio.

Rightly so, because international law has been on the side of the Philippines since 2016: At that time, the International Court of Justice in The Hague decided that the Philippines' claim to the area off its coast, which is rich in atolls, is justified. Accordingly, the "Sierra Madre" lies within the exclusive economic zone of the Philippines. The Chinese claim, on the other hand, has no legal basis. The occupation of Mischief Atoll, which has lasted for almost 30 years, is illegal.

But Beijing ignores the case law, claiming that the verdict is "political theatre". That is why there are always small and large skirmishes between China and the Philippines in the waters. At the beginning of August, the Chinese coast guard fired water cannons at two Filipino ships that wanted to bring food, water and other supplies to the "Sierra Madre".

Jonathan Malaya, Deputy Director of the National Security Council of the Philippines, spoke of "aggressive, dangerous and illegal" actions by the Chinese Coast Guard. This would endanger the "life of the Philippine crew". It is a violation of "humanitarian and international law".

The Chinese violations are clear, and yet they are unlikely to stop. Because Beijing expects the Philippines to expand the rusting ship and want to strengthen it militarily: Philippine ships with "illegal building materials on board" have been stopped, says the Chinese coast guard. The water cannon attack was a "warning" to urge the Philippines to tow the "Sierra Madre" and finally get rid of the rusting ship.

It was similar at the beginning of the year: At that time, the Chinese coast guard had "warned" the Philippine ship with a "military laser" of food deliveries to the "Sierra Madre".

China obviously does not want to put up with the applicable laws in the South China Sea. But the Philippines has a powerful ally behind them: the USA is supporting the government in Manila in "overtaking and strengthening" the "Sierra Madre": After the water cannon fire, US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin assured his Philippine counterpart Gilberto Teodoro Jr. in a telephone call the "iron character of the American-Philippine alliance".

This is also made clear in a defense agreement that was renewed at the beginning of this year: so far, American soldiers have had access to five military bases in the Philippines. Earlier this year, the two countries decided that the US should get four more bases.

Should the Philippines be attacked, they can count on US support. This also applies to the "Sierra Madre" - perhaps the most influential rusting ship in the world.