While much of the world was busy watching Russia swallow Crimea, few realized that an also dangerous territorial tit-for-tat had begun to unfold earlier this month more than 5,000 miles away in the South China Sea.
At Second Thomas Shoal, a handful of Philippine marines have long been stationed and re-provisioned on the rusting deck of the BRP Sierra Madre, a Philippine naval ship half-sunk into the reef in 1999. Ever since, the vessel and the marines have served to embody Manila’s claim of sovereignty over the shoal. More recently, China has tried to raise the salience of its own claim by intensively patrolling the area.
On March 9, 2014, China made a move to end the status quo at
the shoal. For the first time in 15 years, Beijing stopped Manila from delivering supplies to the Sierra Madre. The Chinese Coast Guard forced two Philippine ships to turn away. Manila answered the blockade by successfully dropping food and water to the marines by air. It was then up to Manila whether to send in another supply ship or plane, and up to Beijing whether to leave it alone, chase it away, sink it, or shoot it down.
China claims that the Philippine ships were “loaded with construction materials” to build up Manila’s position. Manila says the ships were merely trying to re-provision the marines “to improve the conditions there,” not “to expand or build permanent structures on the shoal.”
Dominance and declaration
A dozen years ago China and the 10 states in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), including the Philippines, signed a “2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea,” or DoC. The signers undertook “to resolve their territorial and jurisdictional disputes by peaceful means, without resorting to the threat or use of force.” China’s threat of force against the Philippine supply ships at Second Thomas Shoal on March 9 violated the DoC.
The DoC’s signers also agreed “to exercise self-restraint in the conduct of activities that would complicate or escalate disputes and affect peace and stability.” Insofar as the Philippine resupply effort on March 9 was designed to continue years of seaborne provisioning that had maintained the status quo at Second Thomas Shoal since 1999, it did not innovate a complication and was not an escalation.
The states that negotiated the DoC in 2002 agreed not to inhabit “the presently uninhabited” land features in the South China Sea. But Second Thomas Shoal was inhabited in 2002. Manila had been rotating its marines through the Sierra Madre and thereby occupying the shoal for three years before the DoC was signed. Nor did China’s blockade of the Philippine ships earlier this month keep the signers’ promise “to handle their differences in a constructive manner.”