Escalating Tensions The Struggle Over a Stranded Ship in the South China Sea Between China and the Philippines

For an extensive duration, a contentious issue has brewed between China and the Philippines concerning a decaying relic turned symbol of sovereignty. This matter revolves around a sunken World War II warship resting on a submerged reef in the South China Sea, where the Philippines has stationed a small marine contingent.

Known as the BRP Sierra Madre, this vessel, though no longer seaworthy, retains its operational status, thereby extending the Philippines’ territorial jurisdiction. However, recent events have thrust this dilapidated wreck into the spotlight once again, sparking a fresh round of conflict.

Over the weekend, China’s coast guard engaged in a heated exchange with Philippine vessels attempting to deliver essential supplies to the stationed troops. The situation escalated when China’s coast guard employed a water cannon, an act met with outrage from Manila.

Initially commissioned as the USS LST-821, a US tank-landing ship during World War II, the 100-meter BRP Sierra Madre has a storied history. It was later rechristened the USS Harnett County and found use as a helicopter gunship base during the Vietnam War. Following the conflict, the vessel transitioned to the Philippines navy, earning the moniker BRP Sierra Madre in honor of the nation’s longest mountain range.

The strategic grounding of the BRP Sierra Madre on Second Thomas Shoal in the late 1990s served as a unique move to counter China’s advancement in the disputed waters. This unconventional approach aimed to assert the Philippines’ presence on the shoal, responding to China’s occupation of the nearby Mischief Reef several years earlier, which was also claimed by Manila.

This dispute escalated rapidly as two Chinese naval frigates arrived at the newly established outpost shortly after its inception, positioning their weaponry towards the vessel. China’s prior occupation of Mischief Reef had set the stage for this unorthodox Philippines maneuver.

Situated in the Spratly Islands, Second Thomas Shoal is approximately 200 kilometers west of the Philippines’ Palawan Island and over 1,000 kilometers away from China’s closest major landmass, Hainan Island. Consequently, the shoal falls within the Philippines’ 370-kilometer exclusive economic zone (EEZ). However, it is vital to clarify that an EEZ bestows sovereign rights to exploit fisheries and natural resources without signifying outright sovereignty.

China’s expansive claims over the South China Sea encompass Second Thomas Shoal, leading to its substantial deployment of vessels for patrolling and occupying various reefs. This audacious behavior contradicts an international court ruling from 2016, which invalidated the legal basis for China’s claims.

As this longstanding conflict renews its vigor, the BRP Sierra Madre continues to serve as both a physical and symbolic flashpoint in the ongoing dispute between China and the Philippines in the South China Sea.