MANILA – A handful of marines living on a World War II-era ship grounded on a remote, tiny reef is the Philippines’ last line of defense against China’s efforts to control most of the South China Sea.
The soldiers are stationed on Second Thomas Shoal in the Spratly Islands aboard a former U.S. tank-landing vessel that was deliberately abandoned there to serve as a base, said their former commander, Juancho Sabban.
“Their lives are very hard . . . but they are marines. They are used to that kind of thing,” said the retired general. “There is no ground. They live on a grounded ship. They depend only on supplies that are delivered to them on logistics runs.”
The shoal and the lives of the troops guarding it were thrust into the global spotlight this week after the Philippines said a Chinese warship was “illegally and provocatively” circling the area.
“China has indisputable sovereignty over the Nansha Islands and their adjacent waters,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said in Beijing, referring to the Spratlys by their Chinese name. “Patrols by Chinese official ships in the waters are justified.”
It was the latest in a series of aggressive steps by Beijing in recent years to assert its claim over the South China Sea. China says it has sovereign rights over nearly all of the area, but the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan also claim parts of it. The waters have for decades been regarded as a potential trigger for a major military conflict.
Dozens of Vietnamese soldiers died in losing battles in 1974 and 1988 with Chinese forces for control of South China Sea islands, which are believed to sit atop reserves of oil and gas worth billions of dollars.
The Spratlys archipelago, which has hundreds of islands, reefs and atolls, is one of the most hotly contested areas. All claimants, except Brunei, station troops on islands and atolls of various sizes in the Spratlys to back their claims. The Philippines occupies nine of the Spratlys, including the second-largest isle in the area.
Second Thomas Shoal is a tiny group of islets and reefs about 200 km northwest of the Philippine island of Palawan, the nearest major landmass. Resupply ships take between 36 and 40 hours to reach it.
“It sinks at high tide,” said Eugenio Bito-onon, mayor of the region that oversees the Philippine-held Spratlys.
The BRP Sierra Madre, a 100-meter amphibious vessel built for the United States in 1944 and acquired by the Filipino Navy in 1976, was deliberately grounded in the late 1990s to shelter the garrison, according to Bito-onon. He said each of the Philippine-held islands were manned by “at most” a dozen marines or navy personnel.
Galvez said the grounded vessel produced its own electricity via an engine, giving the shoal garrison access to indoor entertainment including movies and video games. Satellite phones also keep them in contact during tours of duty that last between three and six months.
“It’s still a functioning ship. It’s just considered a ship in distress,” Galvez said.
Ian Storey, a senior fellow at the Singapore-based Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, said the presence of the warship showed China was prepared to use its growing military power to protect its far-roaming fishing vessels.
“It’s a fairly strong signal that, increasingly, China is going to provide naval as well as civilian assets to protect its fishing fleets,” he said. “Of course, there’s always a danger in this kind of situation where either through miscommunication or misperception an accidental clash takes place.”