Philippines defending strategic shoal against Beijing’s gray-zone tactics

Philippines defending strategic shoal against Beijing’s gray-zone tactics

Tom Abke

With a mix of diplomacy, appeals to the rule of law and a steadfast naval presence, the Philippines has been defending Second Thomas Shoal, a maritime feature within its exclusive economic zone (EEZ), against the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC’s) gray-zone intimidation tactics. Falsely claiming that the South China Sea shoal is PRC territory, Chinese coast guard and maritime militia vessels have encircled it for months, according to local reports.

“Ayungin Shoal is a strategic gateway to Reed Bank that is believed to be rich in oil and natural gas,” Chester Cabalza, president of Manila’s International Development and Security Cooperation, told FORUM, referring to the shoal by its Philippine name. “Therefore, it is a strategic part of the Philippines’ EEZ.”

Beijing claims sovereignty over the shoal on the basis of the regime’s arbitrary “nine-dash line” demarcation. That claim was dismissed as legally invalid by the international Permanent Court of Arbitration in 2016 under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which grants nations EEZs extending 200 nautical miles from their shores and sole rights to the maritime resources within the EEZ.

The Philippine Navy’s BRP Sierra Madre, pictured, a World War II-era landing ship, has been grounded at the shoal since 1999 to serve as a defense outpost marking the feature as within the Philippines’ EEZ, Cabalza said. Crewed by Philippine Marines and Sailors, the outpost has been harassed by PRC vessels, periodically cutting it off from food and water supplies.

Most of the Chinese vessels deployed around the shoal are coast guard or maritime militia, he said, characterizing their tactics as part of a strategy to dislodge the Philippines and grab unlawful possession for Beijing. The PRC employed the same strategy in 2012 to eventually gain control over Scarborough Shoal, another feature within the Philippines’ EEZ, Cabalza added.

In late April 2022, PRC vessels used fishing nets and buoys to prevent two supply boats and their Philippine Coast Guard escort from reaching the BRP Sierra Madre, the Philippine Daily Inquirer newspaper reported. On June 10, 2022, the Philippine government filed a diplomatic protest stating that PRC vessels have no right to fish around Ayungin Shoal or to monitor or interfere with the Philippines’ activities there.

A week later, the United States State Department called on the PRC “to end its provocative actions and to respect international law in the South China Sea,” citing Second Thomas Shoal and Whitsun Reef, another feature within the Philippines’ EEZ, where about 100 PRC vessels amassed in April 2022.

The Philippines and the U.S. have been military allies since 1951.

In late June 2022, the Philippine Coast Guard resupplied the BRP Sierra Madre and rotated its crew, but only after a nearby Chinese coast guard vessel claimed falsely by radio that the Philippine vessel was in PRC territory and, therefore, required permission to conduct its operations, The Star newspaper of Manila reported.

Cabalza described Manila’s combination of diplomacy, partnership and naval presence as the “best tactics” for countering Beijing’s aggression. By “flexing its military might” around Second Thomas Shoal and other features, he said, Beijing will likely galvanize opposition among the other territorial claimants, including Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam.