What a navy ship stranded on a South China Sea shoal reveals about China-Philippine relations


Nong Hong says the quick extraction of the Philippine navy ship from Half Moon Shoal indicates that, even though China-Philippines relations may face troubled political waters, economic considerations could provide an anchor.

The Philippine navy frigate, the BRP Gregorio del Pilar, ran aground on Half Moon Shoal in waters off the disputed Spratly Islands on August 29. The frigate is one of the three ships the Philippines armed forces acquired from the US coastguard, and are currently the largest warships owned by the Philippines.

Half Moon Shoal lies about 110km (68 miles) from the southern tip of the western Philippine island of Palawan and south of the disputed Second Thomas Shoal, where a Philippine navy transport ship was intentionally grounded in 1999 and has since served as a military outpost for the country.

Philippine defence officials notified the Chinese government after the accidental grounding, but rejected China’s offer of assistance. Philippine military officials talked about “ongoing coordination” with the US for assistance to recover the stranded warship.

Four Philippine navy and coastguard ships were reportedly deployed to secure the BRP Gregorio del Pilar and provide food and other supplies to its sailors.

According to a Philippines military spokesman, two commercial tugboats were hired to extricate the ship and tow it to a Philippine port for repairs on September 3.

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The ship was retrieved much more quickly than many international and regional analysts thought it would be. China was very wary about a recurrence of the 1999 grounding of the Philippine navy transport ship that effectively allowed the Filipinos to “occupy” Second Thomas Shoal.

The United States worried that the Chinese offer to help extricating the frigate would turn out to be a “diplomatic victory”, in favour of China’s “public common good” narrative, justifying its construction of islands and facility deployment on the features it occupies in the South China Sea.

The Philippines was concerned that allowing China to lead the rescue mission would give Beijing the upper hand in the territorial and maritime dispute.