Warship sparks Sino-American rivalry.

Warship sparks Sino-American rivalry.

The Sierra Madre: A Filipino Outpost in the South China Sea

Sierra Madre

She began her life as USS LST-821, an American landing ship for tanks in times of war. Later, as the USS Harnett County, she provided a base for river boats and helicopter gunships during the Vietnam War. Briefly known as South Vietnam’s My Tho, she served as a vessel for refugees fleeing the fall of Saigon in 1975. Today, as the rusting hulk named BRP Sierra Madre, she takes on her most celebrated role yet—as a Philippine outpost defying mighty China.

Located on the Second Thomas Shoal, approximately 200km from Palawan, the nearest large Philippine island, a small group of Philippine marines has been living within the carcass of the Sierra Madre since 1999. The intentional grounding of the ship was meant to assert the Philippines’ claim to the reef and sections of the South China Sea. Conversely, China claims almost the entire sea and has transformed several reefs into military bases. Despite its distance of over 1,000km from China’s Hainan island, the Sierra Madre remains a persistent thorn in China’s side and a potential flashpoint for wider Sino-American rivalry.

Second Thomas Shoal

Recently, on August 5th, Chinese ships blocked Philippine boats from resupplying the Sierra Madre, even resorting to using water cannons. In response to this “aggressive” behavior, the Philippine government summoned the Chinese ambassador to protest. China, suspecting that the ship is being repaired to ensure its longevity, accused the Philippines of violating its sovereignty for the past 24 years and demanded the removal of the ship.

China’s disregard for a 2016 ruling by an international arbitration court adds fuel to the fire. The ruling declared most of China’s claims to “historic rights” as invalid under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. The court also determined that the Spratly “islands” were not legitimate islands, hence unable to generate exclusive economic zones. Consequently, the Second Thomas Shoal lies within the Philippines’ zone.

Philippines and China territory claims

Tensions in the region have heightened significantly over time. China’s military build-up has allowed them to establish a greater presence around disputed features like rocks and atolls. The Philippines, on the other hand, has become more vocal about China’s bullying tactics and has gravitated towards America under President Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. As a result, America has been strengthening its security accords with countries across the region.

In alignment with the mutual-defense treaty between the United States and the Philippines, the US has warned China that any armed attack on Philippine public vessels, aircraft, or armed forces, including coastguard ships, would trigger the treaty. However, America’s specific intentions remain unclear. They have conducted “freedom of navigation” patrols to challenge Chinese claims and have been training local forces in the western Pacific through their coastguard. Joint naval patrols with the Philippines are also expected, although some experts believe they may primarily serve a symbolic purpose.

China, on the other hand, hopes to prevent repairs to the Sierra Madre long enough for the ship to collapse into the reef, eliminating the Philippine outpost effectively.

In conclusion, the Sierra Madre, once a vessel of war and refuge, now sits at the heart of a geopolitical struggle in the South China Sea. Its presence serves as a constant reminder of the Philippines’ claim to the Second Thomas Shoal and the surrounding waters. As tensions rise in the region, the Sierra Madre may continue to redefine its role and become a symbol of resilience and defiance against powers much larger than itself.