It is perhaps the most unlikely kind of military base. For more than two decades, a second world war-era ship, BRP Sierra Madre, has stood deliberately grounded in the remote, shallow waters of the fiercely contested South China Sea, carrying the Philippine flag and guarding against Chinese expansion.
However, its fate is becoming more uncertain and the vessel has become a significant source of tension in one of the most contested regions in the world.
The Sierra Madre, stranded on Second Thomas Shoal in the Spratly Islands since 1999, is essentially a wrecked ship. Its sides have been corroded by rust and its shell is riddled with holes. Military analysts are uncertain how much longer it can endure – and the Philippines is faced with a challenging choice about its next steps. The United States, which has a defense treaty with Manila and views the South China Sea as a strategically vital area due to its high level of maritime traffic, may also be faced with a similar decision.
The Philippines has made multiple efforts to provide supplies to a small group of marines residing on a ship, but China has continuously prevented them and demanded that the ship be removed. Experts believe that China is intentionally waiting for the ship to deteriorate, resulting in the shoal being left unoccupied. On Sunday, there were two collisions between Philippine and Chinese vessels during Manila’s attempt to deliver supplies, adding to the already tense maritime encounters between the two countries.
Leaving the ship behind would be a challenging withdrawal for the Philippines. According to Jaime Naval, an assistant professor at the University of the Philippines, the Sierra Madre represents the extent of our sovereignty and sovereign rights.
Transporting building supplies, even for a partial reconstruction of the Sierra Madre, is a difficult logistical task – whether by air or water. According to Raymond Powell, a researcher at Stanford University’s Gordian Knot Center for National Security Innovation in the US, it is nearly impossible to successfully transport materials by sea without being noticed. This is due to the lack of fast and stealthy options in the Philippine’s inventory.
According to Powell, Second Thomas Shoal has a single, slender entry point that can be easily obstructed. Additionally, Chinese vessels stationed at Mischief Reef, under their occupation since 1995, can be rapidly mobilized. Powell describes Mischief Reef as an ideal option for implementing a blockade.
In 1995, when China took control of Mischief Reef, Manila responded by intentionally grounding the Sierra Madre at Second Thomas Shoal. These two locations are within 200 nautical miles of Palawan, a Philippine island, and therefore fall under the country’s exclusive economic zone. This gives the Philippines the authority to utilize resources and build in the region.
Following the recent crashes, the Philippines accused China of engaging in “reckless, irresponsible, and unlawful” actions by obstructing their boats. In response, Mao Ning, spokesperson for China’s foreign ministry, stated that their coast guard had lawfully prevented the Philippines from sending construction materials to a ship that was allegedly grounded without permission.
The UN tribunal ruled that Beijing’s claim to almost all of the South China Sea is not supported by any legal basis.
Last week, there was a clash between Chinese and Philippine ships during a resupply operation, which is the most recent of many confrontations. In August, Chinese coast guard vessels sprayed water at a Philippine resupply boat. In February, Manila claimed that China aimed a high-powered laser at a Philippine ship.
Experts have cautioned about the growing intensity and frequency of confrontations, emphasizing the potential for miscalculation in a longstanding and sensitive dispute. The mutual defense pact between Manila and Washington covers armed assaults on Philippine military, naval, and air forces, as well as its Coast Guard, in the South China Sea, according to the US State Department. If the situation escalates, this could lead to a confrontation between the US and Beijing.
According to Harrison Prétat, an associate director and fellow at the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative of The Center for Strategic and International Studies, tensions have escalated to a level not witnessed since 2014. This was when the Philippines resorted to airdropping supplies to Second Thomas Shoal in order to break through a blockade imposed by China.
There is speculation about the possibility of using an airdrop for supply delivery again, but experts believe it is not a viable long-term solution. The Stratbase ADR Institute, based in Manila, recommended joint patrols with the US and other allies as a potential alternative. Its president, Dindo Manhit, stated that the Philippines can only effectively assert its rights by collaborating with others.
According to Prétat, implementing joint patrols would pose challenges. He raises the question of whether a US ship would consistently accompany resupply missions in the future if they start doing so now. Prétat noted that these missions occur once or twice a month.
Additionally, the specifics of a joint patrol are not clear and could potentially escalate tensions.
Naval suggests that collaborating with partner nations, rather than solely relying on the US, could effectively combat Beijing’s belief that the Philippines is being used by Washington to cause disturbance in the area. He states, “The Chinese are attempting to oversimplify the situation by portraying it as a simple conflict between two powerful entities. However, this is not the case.”
During the presidency of Ferdinand Marcos Jr, the Philippines has renewed its partnership with the United States, which had deteriorated during the term of his predecessor Rodrigo Duterte. Additionally, the country has also enhanced its relationships with Japan and Australia.
Last week, the Chief of Staff of the Philippine Armed Forces, Gen. Romeo Brawner, announced that they have initiated preliminary repairs on the ship.
Brawner expressed sadness at the living conditions of the small group of soldiers, stating that efforts are being made to enhance their housing, dining options, and internet access.
Previously, Naval has conducted interviews with soldiers who served on the ship. According to him, it can be described as infuriating. The soldiers are confined to tight living spaces, constantly in close proximity to one another for months. The storms are harsh and there is minimal comfort, aside from a TV running on batteries that repeats the same movies.
Powell states that due to the deteriorated condition of the Sierra Madre, it is uncertain how much can be saved. He suggests that instead of repairing the ship, abandoning it and intentionally grounding a different vessel at a nearby shoal could be considered as an alternative plan. He also proposes the relocation of troops to a different ship located at a closer atoll, such as Sabina Shoal near the coast of Palawan.
The speaker suggests that while it may be seen as a setback, it could also be seen as a step towards success as it allows for a fresh start. He also mentions the possibility of bringing on materials for ongoing maintenance.
According to Prétat, it is uncertain if China would attempt to develop the atoll if it remained uninhabited, as Mischief Reef is approximately 30km away.
The amount of time that the Sierra Madre has before it is affected by natural forces is unknown, but Powell has expressed worries that its downfall could happen in a matter of months rather than years. He emphasizes the need to be prepared for the possibility that it could begin at any moment.