Second Thomas Shoal, a low tide coral reef located 105 nautical miles from the Philippines’ Palawan Island, is likely to become the next flashpoint in the South China Sea. The shoal—which is 15 kilometers long and five kilometers wide and is known as Ayungin in the Philippines and Ren’ai Reef in China—is a strategic gateway to deposits of coveted oil and natural gas in Reed Bank and is claimed by the Philippines to be within its 200 mile exclusive economic zone (Taipei Times, May 30).
In early May, Manila lodged an official protest over the patrols around Second Thomas Shoal of two Chinese surveillance ships and a naval frigate that it charged were blocking Philippine ships from delivering supplies to troops deployed at the shoal (Manila Times, June 2). In 1999, the Philippines deliberately ran aground the BRP Sierra Madre, a World War II-era landing transport ship, on the shoal to establish a presence on the island; the ship has served as a Philippine base hosting approximately 10 marines since that time. Manila claims that ships sent to the shoal carry provisions for the troops and that it has no intention to build further infrastructure on the shoal (Malaya, June 5; Philippine Star, May 22; May 17).
The former World War II vessel, however, has begun to rust out, prompting President Aquino to instruct it be repaired so that the Philippines can maintain its presence. The Philippines Department of Foreign Affairs has stated it considers Second Thomas Shoal an “integral part” of the Philippines, and that “China should pull out of the area because under international law, they do not have the right to be there” (Philippine Daily Inquirer, May 28). Philippine Secretary of Defense Voltaire Gazmin has declared his country “will fight for what is ours up to the last soldier standing” (Philippine Star, May 24).
The Chinese government, however, maintains that is has “indisputable sovereignty” over the shoal and that any Philippine attempts to send supply ships to “intensify its illegal presence and occupation of the Ren’ai Reef” are in violation of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DoC). Additionally, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hong Lei asserted that the right of Chinese ships to protect China’s national sovereignty by carrying out patrols around the shoal is “beyond reproach” (Ministry of Foreign Affairs, May 30; May 22).
These events come in the wake of heightened tensions last year between the Philippines and China over a standoff at Scarborough Shoal. The episode was triggered in early April 2012 when the BRP Gregorio del Pilar, a navy frigate acquired by the Philippines from the United States, discovered eight Chinese fishing vessels illegally poaching in the shoal. After the Philippine Navy inspected the Chinese vessels, two Chinese maritime surveillance ships appeared in the shoal and positioned themselves between the Chinese fishing boats and the BRP Gregorio Del Pilar. In the subsequent days and weeks, a small number of Philippine vessels stood at an impasse with a much larger fleet of Chinese ships. At one point, the Philippine Navy had two ships facing off against 90 Chinese vessels. After quiet negotiations that were brokered by the United States, Manila and Beijing reached an oral agreement to withdraw their vessels from the area. In early June, the Philippines complied. The Chinese, however, reneged on the agreement, and Chinese government vessels have remained in the area, maintaining a continued presence around the shoal and preventing Philippine fishermen from returning. Recent reports suggest that China is building a permanent structure on the shoal (InterAksyon, June 6; Philippine Daily Inquirer, June 3).
After successfully seizing control of Scarborough Shoal, Chinese experts praised the operation as an adroit exercise of Chinese power to defend Chinese sovereignty and territorial integrity. In recent weeks, some voices have called for the application of the successful strategy to Second Thomas Shoal. Chinese Air Force Major General Zhang Zhaozhong, a nationalistic pundit who regularly appears on Chinese television talk shows, proposed a “cabbage” strategy to deal with Second Thomas Shoal in which the Chinese would surround the shoal in layers of Chinese ships, with fishing vessels in the inner layers, surrounded by civilian maritime vessels and navy ships in the outer layers. The goal of such a strategy would be to compel the Philippine marines deployed on the Shoal to abandon the grounded vessel for lack of sustenance (Malaya, June 5). If such an approach fails, other experts have asserted China should consider towing the BRP Sierra Madre away from the shoal—an action that carries potential for conflict considering the presence of armed Philippine marines (CCTV-4, May 31).
Although Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia and Taiwan also assert claims in the South China Sea, this particular feature is only contested by China, the Philippines and Taiwan. Manila filed a case with the United Nations in January to bring its territorial dispute with China to an United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) arbitration tribunal—an action that has drawn support from the United States, the European Parliament, Japan and Vietnam, but anger from China that strongly opposes multilateral discussions on territorial issues (Philippine Daily Inquirer, May 28).
Washington does not take an official position on competing territorial claims in the South China Sea, but it is a treaty ally of the Philippines and, according to U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, “stands firmly against any coercive attempts to alter the status quo.” While recently attending the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, Hagel spoke with his Filipino counterpart Voltaire Gazmin on the U.S.–Philippines relationship, reaffirming the 1954 Mutual Defense Treaty between the nations. According to a Pentagon spokesman, the two “discussed deepening bilateral defense cooperation including work toward increasing rotational presence of U.S. forces in [the] Philippines to address common challenges” (Philippine Daily Inquirer, June 1). The United States also is helping the Philippine military to increase its maritime domain awareness in its coastal waters, including the South China Sea.
Although Washington recently has increased military assistance to the Philippines, it is less clear whether the United States is required to come to the aid of the Philippines under the Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) in the case of aggression in the Second Thomas Shoal (New York Times, June 6). The MDT states in the case of an attack on either party, the other is obligated to “meet the common dangers in accordance with its constitutional processes,” but the U.S. Government has been careful to not state whether this includes an attack on marine features such as Second Thomas Shoal. In the case of Scarborough Shoal tension last year, the U.S. sent an aircraft carrier to the region in a signal of support for Manila and to deter Chinese coercion and aggression, but it did not intervene (New York Times, May 1, 2012) .
The failed negotiations to defuse tensions at the Scarborough Shoal last year and return the situation to the status quo ante have had significant consequences. Beijing evidently is applying lessons learned from that incident to the Second Thomas Shoal. From China’s perspective, the Philippines’ attempt to repair its vessel that was grounded on the shoal over a decade ago constitutes a provocation. As in the case of Scarborough Shoal, Beijing is poised to exploit any perceived provocation with the goal of creating a new status quo that favors China. This strategy also was applied by China in the East China Sea in September 2012, when the Japanese government purchased three of the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands from a private Japanese citizen. Regular Chinese patrols around those islands—including within the 12-mile territorial waters—have contested Japanese administrative control effectively, establishing a new status quo that is to Beijing’s advantage. Repeated U.S. declarations that the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands are covered under the scope of the U.S.-Japan Mutual Defense Treaty have not deterred Beijing from conducting almost daily sea patrols to assert Chinese sovereignty.
China is betting that the United States will be unwilling to intervene to preserve Manila’s presence on Second Thomas Shoal. That calculus probably is correct. Washington will continue to speak out against the use of coercion to change the status quo unilaterally, but it is unlikely that U.S. Navy ships will engage directly with Chinese government maritime vessels or the Chinese Navy over rocks and shoals in the South China Sea. That does not mean, however, that there are no risks in the current standoff.
The Philippine Navy is substantially inferior to the emerging blue-water Chinese navy and lacks the capability to defend its presence on Second Thomas Shoal in the event that China is determined to dislodge its marines. Nevertheless, Manila may put up a fight. The potential for a military skirmish between the two sides will increase under either of the following scenarios:
Either scenario could escalate to military conflict. Even if conflict is avoided, heightened tensions could deal a blow to efforts to launch early talks on negotiation of a Code of Conduct between China and the members of ASEAN (“The South China Sea Dispute (Part One): Negative Trends Continue in 2013,” China Brief, June 7).
China’s employment of civilian maritime surveillance vessels in the South China Sea and East China Sea to alter the status quo in its favor poses a serious challenge to the Obama administration and its strategy of “rebalancing” foreign policy priorities toward the Asia-Pacific. U.S. credibility as a guarantor of peace and stability in the region is as stake, especially with U.S. treaty allies Japan and the Philippines. To date, Washington lacks an effective strategy to deter Chinese coercion against its neighbors and its efforts to change the status quo unilaterally over disputed islands, reefs and shoals.