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Second Thomas Shoal | A symbol of defiance

Lying in the waters around the Spratly Islands, a derelict ship at the Second Thomas Shoal has become a symbol of the Philippines’ defiance in the hotly contested South China Sea. A recent incident in the area, where the Philippines claims that China Coast Guard ships caused two collisions with their boats and water cannoned one of them, has renewed global interest in the flashpoint.

The Philippine vessels were part of a routine mission to deliver provisions to troops stationed on the grounded navy vessel BRP Sierra Madre at Second Thomas Shoal.

The incident happened a day after Philippine Foreign Minister Enrique Manalo called on China to “stop harassing us”, defending the country’s strategy of publicising Chinese manoeuvres in the South China Sea.

The Chinese Coast Guard ships and accompanying vessels blocked the Philippine vessels off the disputed Second Thomas Shoal and executed dangerous manoeuvres that caused two minor collisions between the Chinese ships and two of the Philippine vessels, Philippine officials said. An hour later, another Chinese Coast Guard ship collided with a supply boat the Philippine coast guard was escorting.

A Philippine government task force dealing with territorial disputes said four crew members were injured, and called China’s actions “another attempt to illegally impede or obstruct a routine resupply and rotation mission.” Similar skirmishes were also reported in December.

The Spratly Islands themselves are claimed by multiple countries in the region, including China, Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines, and Malaysia. The Philippines first took possession of the Second Thomas Shoal in the late 1990s, setting an outpost on the drowned BRP Sierra Madre. This Second World War-era ship was intentionally grounded by the Philippines to create an outpost for the country and boost the Philippines’ claim over the Spratly Islands.

The country continues to maintain its presence there and the ship serves as a military outpost, manned by a small contingent of troops. The Philippines claims that the shoal lies within its exclusive economic zone (EEZ), which, under international law, extends up to 200 nautical miles. The Second Thomas Shoal lies about 108 nautical miles (200 km) from the Philippine island of Palawan.

China’s claims

China claims sovereignty over most of the South China Sea, including the Second Thomas Shoal, based on the historical and controversial Nine-dash line. China’s claims cut into the EEZs of Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia. In 2013, the Philippines had filed a case against China with the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, challenging the legality of China’s claims and activities in the South China Sea, including the Second Thomas Shoal.

The Philippines took China to international court after the latter seized effective control of the Scarborough Shoal in 2012. The court ruled in favour of the Philippines in 2016, but China rejected the judgment.

The incident is concerning for the Philippines since in 1995, when China took over the Mischief Reef, a low-tide elevation located in Spratly Islands that was claimed by the Philippines. The distance between Mischief Reef and Second Thomas Shoal is just 22 nautical miles (around 40 km), and China’s presence on the Mischief Reef leaves the Philippines potentially exposed to attacks from its neighbour. In 2022, it was reported that China has “fully militarised at least three of several islands it built in the disputed South China Sea”, on Mischief Reef, Subi Reef and Fiery Cross. A top U.S. military commander said that China has armed these islands with anti-ship and anti-aircraft missile systems, laser and jamming equipment and fighter jets.

The recent flare in tensions between the two countries can be attributed to Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr.’s proximity to the U.S. While former President Rodrigo Duterte downplayed the tensions, Marcos Jr. worked with the U.S. in a bid to improve the country’s defence capability. The U.S. now has access to nine Philippine military bases. Additionally, Manila also hosted its largest military exercise with the U.S. last year. The increasing presence of the U.S. in the South China Sea, which is among the world’s busiest shipping routes, appears to have alarmed China. Experts believe that once the BRP Sierra Madre falls apart, China may attempt to take over the Second Thomas Shoal, which will also bring it dangerously close to Palawan Island. One of the military bases that the U.S. gained access to in 2023 is located on the Palawan Island.

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