Out of all of the flashpoints in the South China Sea, the Second Thomas Shoal is one of the more bizarre. The atoll, claimed by the Philippines (where it’s known as Ayungin Shoal) and China (which calls it Ren’ai Reef), is uninhabitable, but does host a small contingent of Philippine soldiers. This crew (generally consisting of eight or nine) lives not on the shoal itself but on board the BRP Sierre Madre – a Philippine naval vessel intentionally grounded on the reef in 1999, four years after China occupied nearby Mischief Reef (also claimed by the Philippines). For the past 16 years, the vessel has remained there, slowly rusting away in the South China Sea while acting a bastion of Philippines control over the shoal, which Manila claims is part of its exclusive economic zone.
The Philippines is now reinforcing the hull and deck of the ship, according to Reuters, using small fishing boats to slip “cement, steel, cabling, and welding equipment” past watchful Chinese coastguard vessels. Officers who have visited the vessel portrayed the work as merely trying to maintain the ship’s current state. “We know China has been waiting for the ship to disintegrate but we are doing everything to hold it together,” one officer told Reuters.
Philippine Navy spokesman Colonel Edgard Arevalo confirmed to AFP that “maintenance repair is being done to ensure the vessel’s minimum habitability.” Arevalo added that the “sorry state [of the ship] has gained notoriety when it was reported by international print media,” possibly a reference to a 2013 New York Times profile of the ship and the men stationed on what the Times called “a kind of post-apocalyptic military garrison.” The ragged condition of the ship was clear in that piece: “Aside from the quarters, which were themselves full of leaks and rust, there was hardly any place inside the boat to congregate that wasn’t either a health hazard, full of water, or open to the elements.”
Reported construction on the Sierra Madre sparked controversy last year as well. In 2014, the Philippines complained that Chinese coast guard vessels were blocking routine resupply missions from reaching the Sierra Madre. Manila protested, saying its supply boats were only bringing food, water, and necessary supplies; Beijing retorted that the boats were in fact carrying construction materials. “The two Philippine ships were loaded with concrete and rebar rather than food. Is concrete and rebar edible?” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Qin Gang asked scathingly on March 13, 2014.
The presence of the Sierra Madre has rankled China since the ship ran aground in 1999. Beijing has repeatedly asked the Philippines to tow the boat away but to no avail. To China, the Sierra Madre’s presence alone is provocative, as the grounded ship (and the soldiers stationed on board) clearly function to assert Philippines sovereignty over the disputed region. As CSIS fellow Gregory Poling pointed out on Twitter, the ship essentially functions as an “artificial island,” allowing for a continuous Philippine presence on an otherwise mostly-submerged feature.
The fact that Manila is doing construction on the vessel galls China even more. Construction on the grounded ship “discloses [the Philippines’] hypocrisy and duplicity, and stands as another example that the Philippines is the real trouble-maker and rule-breaker in the region,” Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying fumed on Wednesday. “China reserves the right to take further actions.”
Philippine Foreign Ministry spokesperson Charles Jose declined to comment specifically on the work. But he did say that repairs to the Sierra Madre would not violate the 2002 Declaration of Conduct. “In our view, repairs and maintenance of existing facilities are allowed … especially if such repairs and maintenance work are for the safety of our personnel and safety of navigation,” Reuters quoted Jose as saying.
Most claimants to the South China Sea (including China) use similar interpretations of the DoC to justify their own construction work – including, in China’s case, building entirely new islands. Manila has repeatedly and publicly denounced China’s land reclamation projects, with Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario telling an ASEAN meeting in April, “The threats posed by these massive reclamations are real and cannot be ignored or denied.”
Last year, Manila said it had halted its construction activities in the South China Sea and urged other claimants to do the same. The Philippines’ move was designed to strengthen its hand before an international tribunal began considering its request for arbitration on the question of China’s nine-dash line, the Philippines’ maritime rights, and the status of certain features within the South China Sea. The tribunal heard Manila’s oral arguments on the question of jurisdiction earlier this week. According to Reuters’ report, it would seem the halt on construction has been lifted in the case of the Sierra Madre.