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China Asks Philippines to Abandon Second Thomas Shoal

The Philippine armed forces outpost aboard a grounded WWII LST at Second Thomas Shoal (Armed Forces of the Philippines)
The Philippine military outpost aboard a grounded World War II LST at Second Thomas Shoal (Armed Forces of the Philippines)

Published Aug 7, 2023 8:40 PM by Paul Benecki

After the confrontation at Second Thomas Shoal last Friday, the government of China has urged the Philippines to remove its small garrison from the land feature and abandon the outpost that symbolizes Manila's claim to sovereignty over the region.

China claims ownership of the Spratly Islands and surrounding waters, including areas within the Philippine exclusive economic zone. Second Thomas Shoal is the scene of frequent standoffs between the China Coast Guard and the Philippine Coast Guard, and the PCG often has to carry out its mission in the face of interdiction by larger and more numerous Chinese vessels. 

In Friday's encounter, two PCG patrol ships and two chartered supply boats attempted to reach the Philippine outpost on Second Thomas Shoal, but were intercepted by a Chinese task force. A China Coast Guard cutter maneuvered in front of a PCG vessel and used its water cannon to deter its progress. Meanwhile, Chinese maritime militia trawlers blocked one of the supply boats and prevented it from completing its mission, according to the PCG. One supply boat still made it through to make a delivery. 

Videos taken by the Philippine Coast Guard and released Monday suggest that the Chinese force was more substantial than first reported, involving three CCG cutters and two maritime militia trawlers - all larger than the Philippine vessels. 

After the run-in, the Chinese Foreign Ministry said in a statement that the PCG's convoy "violated China’s sovereignty" and that the China Coast Guard drove them off in a "professional, restrained" manner. These "appropriate law enforcement measures" were taken "in accordance with law," the ministry stated.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry also blamed the United States for "inciting and supporting the Philippines attempts to overhaul and reinforce" the garrison at Second Thomas Shoal. "The US has been brazenly bolstering Philippines as it infringes upon China’s sovereignty, but those moves will not succeed," the ministry warned. 

China objects to the presence of the garrison and has ordered the Philippine government to remove the BRP Sierra Madre, a wrecked landing ship that serves as a makeshift Philippine base. After its removal, Beijing requested that Manila restore the reef to its natural state. (The practice of turning low-tide elevations into bases is common in the Spratly Islands, and the Chinese military has covered seven coral atolls to create airbases, naval stations and other strategic infrastructure.)

On Monday, a Philippine government spokesman said that retreat from Second Thomas Shoal is unlikely. "We will continue to resupply troops in the grounded vessel as long as it takes," said Philippine National Security Council official Jonathan Malaya at a press conference. "We will never abandon Ayungin Shoal [Second Thomas Shoal]."