Images tweeted by ABS-CBN News from the Philippines on November 18 showed two Filipino boats being blocked and sprayed with water cannons by two Chinese Coast Guard ships during a resupply mission to the Philippine ship BRP Sierra Madre and outpost to the Second Thomas Shoal in the South China Sea on Nov. 16. As a result, the Philippine government filed a diplomatic protest against China, Philippines Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin said on November 18.
China has long demanded that the Philippines remove the BRP Sierra Madre from the shoal, which is in the Spratly Islands. The Philippines categorically refused. The continued presence of the ship, which was intentionally beached on the shoal in 1999, represents the latest flashpoint in a growing conflict between China and the Philippines over sovereignty over key waters and islands. from the South China Sea.
The question of sovereignty over the second Thomas Shoal was one of the legal issues settled in an arbitration award from an international tribunal in 2016, in which the Philippines overwhelmingly won the case they brought to challenge the claims. China’s claims and actions in the South China Sea. Despite being a signatory to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), the international treaty that establishes a legal framework for maritime activities around the world, China has pledged never to accept the ruling. on how UNCLOS applies to South China Sea disputes. .
The confrontation near Second Thomas Shoal was not an aberration. Earlier this year, hundreds of Chinese fishing boats arrived in the islands and islets of the South China Sea, particularly at Whitsun Reef, which, like Second Thomas Shoal, is in the exclusive economic zone (EEZ) of the Philippines but is claimed by China. At that time, Locsin tweeted, “China, my friend, how can I say it politely?” Let me see… O… FIND THE FUCK.
Fearing that the Chinese were on the verge of definitively occupying the islands, the Philippines sent their navy and coast guard. This prompted a response from Beijing demanding that the Filipino ships be withdrawn. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte refused, saying: “I will not step down. Even if you kill me. Our friendship will end here.
This display of determination against China was not characteristic for Duterte. Overall, he has done everything possible to reach an agreement with China since taking over the Philippine presidency in 2016. Examples include the attempt to encourage investment from the Chinese “Belt” initiative. and the Road “in the Philippine infrastructure which is sorely lacking by downplaying the importance of the 2016 arbitration decision. Duterte called China an ally; he and his government have dropped comments critical of China. And, in one of his most obvious maneuvers to please Beijing, Duterte announced that he would rescind the visiting forces deal, functionally expelling the US military from the Philippines. This last movement was then repeated.
As Félix K. Chang notes, the last three Philippine presidents have all “faced the same strategic dilemma: how should a militarily weak Philippines face an increasingly powerful China?”
Two of these presidents, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo (2001-2010) and Duterte today, sought to accommodate China. Benigno Aquino III (2010-2016), who predated Duterte, took a diametrically opposed approach, pushing back against Chinese “encroachments” on Philippine sovereignty. It was Aquino who was largely responsible for China’s South China Sea arbitration claim, as provided by UNCLOS in the first place. Duterte, on the other hand, was keen to quell China’s fury at the decision against it, overturning the decision (which China had said it would never agree to anyway).
Despite Duterte’s obsequiousness, “China has not eased its pressure on elements claimed by the Philippines, like the Pentecostal Reef, in the South China Sea. China has also not reduced its military presence in the region, ”Chang wrote.
As the Philippine Star reported, “More than 500 vessels of China’s ‘civilian’ Coast Guard are equipped with guns. Fifty have missiles. Two are extra-large, with a displacement of 12,000 tons, eclipsing the 8,000-ton destroyers of Asian navies. Filipinos are driven from traditional fishing grounds with machine guns. “
Indeed, the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), in its “rating” of China’s compliance with the 2016 arbitral verdict, found in 2019 that China was in compliance with “only 2 of the 11 parts of the decision, while on another, its position is too vague to be assessed”.
Of particular relevance to last month’s incident, CSIS explained:
The court found that Second Thomas Shoal… is underwater at high tide and does not generate any maritime rights of any kind. And because none of the Spratly Islands can generate EEZs or continental shelves, “There is, therefore, no possible right of China to any maritime area in the region.” Second Thomas Shoal is less than 200 nautical miles from the Philippine coast and is therefore “part of the exclusive economic zone and continental shelf of the Philippines” …
The historical view
Relations between China and the Philippines are complex and have often been confrontational. It is also historical, dating back to the Spanish era of control of the Philippines, which began in 1565 and did not end until 1898. When the Spanish arrived in the Philippines in the 16th century, immigration from China also began to develop. Economic opportunities abounded, and Chinese immigrants soon began to thrive in retail and as artisans.
However, cultural issues led to conflicts with the Chinese; this was often manifested by prejudices against the ethnic Chinese.
Spain’s interest in the Philippines was certainly economic, but it was also religious. In the eyes of the Spanish, it was of the utmost importance to bring Catholicism to the people of the Philippines, and many Filipinos converted. In general, however, Chinese immigrants were not among those who embraced Catholicism. Thus, as Edgar Wickberg writes, “by 1600 the Chinese in the Philippines had come to be seen by the Spaniards as economically necessary but culturally undesirable and politically untrustworthy.”
This attitude has prevailed for centuries. Until the middle of the 20th century, the Philippines adopted law to keep the Chinese out of the Philippine economy. The Retail Nationalization Act of 1954 attempted to “filipinize” the retail sector by excluding Chinese nationals from this trade. The Rice and Maize Trade Nationalization Law had similar objectives.
However, discrimination against people of Chinese descent has declined in recent decades. Today, however, amid China’s aggressive measures in the South China Sea, some fear that anti-Chinese sentiments translate into prejudices against the ethnic Chinese who have lived in the Philippines for generations.
The BRP Sierra Madre
The ship at the center of the controversy over the second Thomas Shoal began life in entirely different waters. Launched in September 1944 in Evansville, Indiana in the United States, the ship was assigned to the US Navy’s Asia-Pacific theater of war, off Okinawa. In 1955, as part of the Pacific Reserve Fleet, he was appointed USS Harnett County.
The ship continued to be used during the Vietnam War and was transferred to South Vietnam in 1970, becoming the RVNS My Tho. After the fall of Saigon in 1975, the My Tho reached Subic Bay in the Philippines, where she was officially transferred to the Philippine Navy in 1976 and renamed the Sierra Madre.
Today, this small tank landing ship is at the center of an international controversy over maritime rights and the geopolitics of the great powers. After surviving two wars, the Sierra Madre continues to serve as a lone outpost on a desert shoal in the South China Sea. It may be small, under-equipped, and under-equipped, but the ship is there – and even Duterte, friend of China, has no plans to abandon it. The replenishment operation was successfully completed on a second attempt.