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Accusations of Hands-On Interference at Contested South China Sea Reef

BRP Sierra Madre (file image courtesy Jay Tarriela)
BRP Sierra Madre (file image courtesy Cmdre Jay Tarriela)

Published Jun 4, 2024 6:21 PM by The Maritime Executive

This week, the Philippines and China are trading new accusations about interactions at Second Thomas Shoal, a reef in the Philippine exclusive economic zone where Manila maintains a small outpost. The site has long been a flash point for confrontations between Chinese and Philippine government vessels, but the new allegations are more hands-on.  

Earlier this week, Chinese media recently claimed that Philippine forces pointed firearms at Chinese personnel during a close-in encounter near the Philippine base, a wrecked landing ship that was run aground in 1999 to provide shelter for Philippine troops defending the area. On Tuesday, Chinese state outlet Xinhua accused the base's personnel of intentionally cutting the nets of Chinese fishermen in the shoal's lagoon, and confiscating some of the net material. (The area's marine resources are within Philippine jurisdiction under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, but China refuses to recognize the 2016 arbitral ruling that confirmed Manila's exclusive economic zone boundaries.) The state-owned outlet released photos purporting to show the outpost's soldiers transferring nets from their small craft up onto the deck of the wrecked ship. 

Meanwhile, the Philippines has accused Chinese forces of seizing essential supplies that were air-dropped to the garrison on the BRP Sierra Madre. China routinely blockades the outpost using its coast guard and maritime militia vessels, and this often forces the Armed Forces of the Philippines to deliver food to the military detachment at Second Thomas Shoal by parachute - a more limited option that excludes heavy or bulky cargo items. 

Philippine military officials said that China Coast Guard personnel intercepted one out of the four parcels that were parachute-dropped during an airborne supply run in mid-May. The Chinese boat team then dumped the supplies over the side; Philippine forces were able to recover some of the goods, but not all. 

China then accused Philippine forces of air-dropping construction materials for repairs of the outpost. Such supplies are badly needed, as the hull of the BRP Sierra Madre dates back to WWII and is rapidly deteriorating on the reef - but China insists that the wreck should not be repaired and must be removed, in accordance with sweeping Chinese claims to sovereignty within the Philippine EEZ. This time, Manila replied that there was no way its small planes could make that kind of delivery. 

"We could not air-drop construction materials. Their narrative is that they do the blocking because of construction materials. I would like to point out that they have zero common sense," said Commodore Roy Vincent Trinidad of the Philippine Navy at a press conference Tuesday.