Satellite images recently released by Maxar reveal the extent to which tensions continue to rise in the South China Sea between the Philippines and China over a strategically important reef. Chinese coastguard vessels are shown blocking access to a Philippines military base on the reef, known internationally as Second Thomas Shoal and by China as Rén’ai Jião.
Second Thomas Shoal – which lies within the Philippines’ Exclusive Economic Zone 200km west of the archipelago and 1,000km from the nearest Chinese landmass – has been occupied by the Philippines since the 1990s. But the reef, which Manila calls Ayungin Shoal, has been a flashpoint for a decade, as Beijing continues its campaign to assert territorial control over the South China Sea.
Dramatic show of force
Tensions rose sharply in December 2023 when the Philippines undertook an operation to reinforce and resupply a contingent of its marines stationed aboard the BRP Sierra Madre, an ageing tank-landing ship that the military deliberately ran aground on the reef in 1999 to serve as a base. In a show of force, some 11 Chinese coastguard and maritime militia vessels were seen within the lagoon intercepting supply missions to the Sierra Madre.
The ship and its contingent of marines remains surrounded in contested waters with aircraft the only means of resupply. China’s aim, it appears, is to isolate the base and force a withdrawal by the Philippines.
These clashes follow an incident in February 2023 when the Philippines coastguard accused a Chinese coastguard vessel of deploying a ‘military grade laser light’ against one of its vessels. Since August, coastguard vessels from both countries have clashed several times. Manila has repeatedly accused China coastguard cutters of ramming Filipino vessels and turning water cannon on ships bound for the reef.
A spokesman for the Philippines National Security Council said in August: ‘China is trying to gauge our commitment to supply our troop. We will never abandon Ayungin Shoal. We will continue to resupply troops in the grounded vessel as long as it takes.’
At the same time, the Chinese foreign ministry alleged the Philippines had repeatedly broken promises to remove its base from the reef. ‘The Chinese side once again urges the Philippines to immediately tow away the “stranded” warship from the Rén’ai Reef and restore the status of no one and no facilities on the reef,’ it said.
In 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague dismissed China’s claims to sovereignty over Philippines waters.
In the new satellite images, Chinese coastguard vessels, among the largest in the world, can be seen operating near the Sierra Madre in November 2023. Other images from September show Chinese vessels moored around the reef preventing passage to the lagoon. Images show large numbers of Chinese boats, thought to be maritime militia vessels, moored in waters near Mischief Reef and Union Banks, Chinese-controlled atolls next to the reef.
‘China wants to prevent the Philippines from reinforcing the hulk of the Sierra Madre,’ says Bill Hayton, associate fellow with the Asia-Pacific Programme, Chatham House. ‘The structure is at risk of falling into the sea and, if it does, the marines will have to leave. The Chinese would then almost certainly occupy the reef.’
According to some, Beijing is pressuring the Philippines to give up its commitments to the US under the Enhanced Defence Cooperation Agreement. ‘Even if the Philippines did agree, I don’t think China would back down,’ said Hayton.
A proxy for America
Sebastian Strangio, Southeast Asia editor of The Diplomat, said: ‘The Philippine pivot back towards America has only confirmed the prevailing Chinese view that the Philippines is something of a proxy for America, and that its relationship with America is premised on a China containment strategy.’
In 2012, Chinese coastguard vessels deployed similar tactics to contest the Philippines’ claim to nearby Scarborough Shoal. The Obama administration orchestrated a mutual withdrawal, but the Chinese coastguard continued to block access for Filipino fishing boats to the waters, and still does.
Over the past decade, China has increased pressure on claimant states of territories in the South China Sea, notably the Philippines and Vietnam. Attention has been directed towards Chinese military bases built on reclaimed islands, as well as on the growing fleet of warships fielded by the People’s Liberation Army Navy.
The relative weakness of the Philippines’ forces and the sheer number of Chinese vessels suggest that Second Thomas Shoal will continue to be a flashpoint in 2024.