Another stand-off in Asian waters

The Philippine Coast Guard patrol vessel BRP Cabra positions itself to prevent two China Coast Guard ships from harassing a civilian boat laden with supplies for Philippine troops on Second Thomas Shoal in the Spratly Islands, August 22, 2023. (Photo: Philippine Coast Guard)

In recent months, long-standing tensions between the maritime forces of the Philippines and China in the South China Sea have crystallised over the disputed area of Second Thomas Shoal in the Spratly Islands. In 1999, Manila deliberately grounded the old Philippine Navy landing ship BRP Sierra Madre near the shoal to be used as an observation post manned by a handful of Philippine Marines.

China Coast Guard (CCG) patrol ships have repeatedly harassed chartered civilian craft bringing supplies to the marines on the old hulk and have even issued regular denouncements of the Philippine presence there. In early August, Beijing stepped things up a gear when two CCG vessels turned fire hoses on a resupply craft, forcing it and its escort, the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) patrol ship BRP Cabra, to back off.

According to US Navy sources, five CCG patrol ships were involved while two People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLA-N) warships were loitering nearby. Some video footage also shows the presence of probable China Maritime Militia vessels. The incident was monitored by an American surveillance aircraft and was widely reported in the international media.

The increasingly self-confident Filipinos responded. The resupply vessel returned on August 22 and, ignoring the CCG presence, completed its mission without further harassment. Philippine government sources have been quoted as claiming that the chartered craft was shadowed by two Philippine Navy warships and a pair of PCG vessels.

That, however, is unlikely to mark the end of the matter. Beijing wants Sierra Madre removed, and the old man o’war is, in any case, disintegrating, and has been described as being “one typhoon away from oblivion.”

It remains to be seen whether Manila will risk replacing the hulk with something more permanent.

Trevor Hollingsbee

Trevor Hollingsbee was a Lieutenant in the Royal Navy and Senior Superintendent with the Hong Kong Marine Police. He is Baird Maritime's resident maritime security expert and columnist.