This shipwreck-turned-military station is a new flashpoint in US-China relations. Take a look inside.

This shipwreck-turned-military station is a new flashpoint in US-China relations. Take a look inside.

The Sierra Madre: A Crumbling Shipwreck with a Purpose

The Sierra Madre

In the South China Sea, a high-seas scuffle between the Chinese and Philippine coast guards recently caught the attention of the US State Department. The incident, involving a Chinese Coast Guard boat firing its water cannon at a Philippine vessel, raised concerns about the Philippines’ lawful exercise of high seas freedom of navigation. However, what makes this particular incident even more intriguing is the backdrop against which it took place – a massive, crumbling shipwreck known as the Sierra Madre.

Reinforcing Sovereignty Claims

The Sierra Madre, a World War II-era warship, was deliberately run aground by the Philippines in 1999 on the disputed Second Thomas Shoal, also known as the Ren’ai Reef in China. The purpose behind this audacious move was to bolster the Philippines’ sovereignty claims in the hotly contested South China Sea. This rusty relic of the past, with its rich history of service in wars, transformed into a political statement and a strategic military outpost.

The Sierra Madre at the Spratly Islands

A Makeshift Garrison

The Sierra Madre, originally known as the USS LST-821, was a tank landing ship built for World War II. It went through a series of name changes and was eventually transferred to the South Vietnamese before finding its final resting place with the Philippines. Today, a small group of troops resides within the ramshackle vessel, living and working in less-than-ideal conditions.

Life on board the Sierra Madre can be depressing and isolating. Staff Sergeant Joey Loresto described the outpost as a “lonely place” and even admitted to preferring combat over being stationed on the ship. The remote assignment brings about a unique set of challenges for these troops, but they remain steadfast in their duty.

Troops stationed on the Sierra Madre

China’s Frustration

China has consistently urged the Philippines to tow the Sierra Madre away since it ran aground. The ship has become a point of contention between the two countries. In response to the recent incident, a spokesperson for the Chinese Embassy in the Philippines defended the Chinese Coast Guard’s use of water cannons. According to the spokesperson, the Philippines’ attempt to deliver construction materials for overhauling and reinforcing the vessel provoked the response.

China Coast Guard spraying water cannon

The US Stands with the Philippines

While the US has no territorial claims in the South China Sea, it has consistently carried out naval operations in the region to support freedom of navigation. In response to the incident, the US Navy stated, “The United States is defending every nation’s right to fly, sail, and operate wherever international law allows.” This statement reaffirms the US commitment to upholding international norms and supporting its allies, including the Philippines, in navigating the contested waters.

The Sierra Madre stands as a vivid symbol of the complex geopolitical dynamics in the South China Sea. It represents the Philippines’ determination to assert its sovereignty and protect its interests in the face of opposition. As tensions persist in the region, the fate of this dilapidated shipwreck continues to be a barometer of the shifting tides of power and influence.