Philippines Continues Defiance of China in the South China Sea

The Philippine’s World War II-era ship called the Sierra Madre

Ayungin Shoal lies 105 nautical miles from the Philippines. There’s little to commend the spot, apart from its plentiful fish and safe harbor — except that Ayungin sits at the southwestern edge of an area called Reed Bank, which is rumored to contain vast reserves of oil and natural gas. And also that it is home to a World War II-era ship called the Sierra Madre, which the Philippine government ran aground on the reef in 1999 and has since maintained as a kind of post-apocalyptic military garrison, the small detachment of Filipino troops stationed there struggling to survive extreme mental and physical desolation. Of all places, the scorched shell of the Sierra Madre has become an unlikely battleground in a geopolitical struggle that will shape the future of the South China Sea and, to some extent, the rest of the world.

By Jeff Himmelman
Photographs and video by Ashley Gilbertson

“The Shark and the Minnow”

In early August, after an overnight journey in a fishing boat that had seen better days, we approached Ayungin from the south and came upon two Chinese Coast Guard cutters stationed at either side of the reef. We were a small group: two Westerners and a few Filipinos, led by Mayor Eugenio Bito-onon Jr., whose territory includes most of the Philippine land claims in the South China Sea. The Chinese presence at Ayungin had spooked the Philippine Navy out of undertaking its regular run to resupply the troops there, but the Chinese were still letting some fishing boats through. We were to behave as any regular fishing vessel with engine trouble or a need for shelter in the shoal would, which meant no radio contact. As we throttled down a few miles out and waited to see what the Chinese Coast Guard might do, there was only an eerie quiet.

Bito-onon stood at the prow, nervously eyeing the cutters. Visits to his constituents on the island of Pag-asa, farther northwest, take him past Ayungin fairly frequently, and the mayor has had his share of run-ins. Last October, he said, a Chinese warship crossed through his convoy twice, at very high speed, nearly severing a towline connecting two boats. This past May, as the mayor’s boat neared Ayungin in the middle of the night, a Chinese patrol trained its spotlight on the boat and tailed it for an hour, until it became clear that it wasn’t headed to Ayungin. “They are becoming more aggressive,” the mayor said. “We didn’t know if they would ram us.”     

We didn’t know if they would ram us, either. As we approached, we watched through binoculars and a camera viewfinder to see if the Chinese boats would try to head us off. After a few tense moments, it became clear that they were going to stay put and let us pass. Soon we were inside the reef, the Sierra Madre directly in front of us. As we chugged around to the starboard side, two marines peered down uncertainly from the top of the long boarding ladder. The ship’s ancient communications and radar equipment loomed above them, looking as if it could topple over at any time. After a series of rapid exchanges with the mayor, the marines motioned for us to throw up our boat’s ropes. Within a minute or two the fishing boat was moored and we were handing up our bags, along with cases of Coca-Cola and Dunkin’ Donuts that naval command had sent along as pasalubong, gifts for the hungry men on board.

But before we had much time to think about that, someone pointed out that the Chinese boats had started to move. They left their positions to the east and west of the reef and began to converge just off the starboard side, where the reef came closest to the ship.

Chinese Coast Guard cutters patrol within sight of the Sierra Madre.

The mayor and several others stood quietly on deck, watching them as they came. The message from the Chinese was unmistakable: We see you, we’ve got our eye on you, we are here.

As the Chinese boats made their half-circle in front of the Sierra Madre, the mayor mimed the act of them filming us. “Wave,” he said. “We’re going to be big on YouTube.”

Dangerous Ground

To understand how Ayungin (known to the Western world as Second Thomas Shoal) could become contested ground is to confront, in miniature, both the rise of China and the potential future of U.S. foreign policy. It is also to enter into a morass of competing historical, territorial and even moral claims in an area where defining what is true or fair may be no easier than it has proved to be in the Middle East.

The Spratly Islands sprawl over roughly 160,000 square miles in the waters of the coasts of the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, Taiwan and China — all of whom claim part of the islands.

The Cabbage Strategy

China is currently in disputes with several of its neighbors, and the Chinese have become decidedly more willing to wield a heavy stick. There is a growing sense that they have been waiting a long time to flex their muscles and that that time has finally arrived. “Nothing in China happens overnight,” Stephanie Kleine-Ahlbrandt, the director of Asia-Pacific programs at the United States Institute of Peace, said. “Any move you see was planned and prepared for years, if not more. So obviously this maritime issue is very important to China.”

It is also very important to the United States, as Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton made clear at a gathering of the Association of Southeast Nations (Asean) in Hanoi in July 2010. Clinton declared that freedom of navigation in the South China Sea was a “national interest” of the United States, and that “legitimate claims to maritime space in the South China Sea should be derived solely from legitimate claims to land features,” which could be taken to mean that China’s nine-dash line was illegitimate. The Chinese foreign minister, Yang Jiechi, chafed visibly, left the meeting for an hour and returned only to launch into a long, vituperative speech about the danger of cooperation with outside powers.

President Obama and his representatives have reiterated America’s interest in the region ever since. The Americans pointedly refuse to take sides in the sovereignty disputes. But China’s behavior as it becomes more powerful, along with freedom of navigation and control over South China Sea shipping lanes, will be among the major global political issues of the 21st century. According to the Council on Foreign Relations, of the $5.3 trillion in global trade that transits the South China Sea each year, $1.2 trillion of it touches U.S. ports — and so American foreign policy has begun to shift accordingly.

In a major speech in Singapore last year, Leon Panetta, then the secretary of defense, described the coming pivot in U.S. strategy in precise terms: “While the U.S. will remain a global force for security and stability, we will of necessity rebalance toward the Asia-Pacific region.” He referred to the United States as a “Pacific nation,” with a capital “P” and no irony, and then announced a series of changes — most notably that the roughly 50-50 balance of U.S. naval forces between the Pacific and the Atlantic would become 60-40 Pacific by 2020. Given the size of the U.S. Navy, this is enormously significant.

In June of last year, the United States helped broker an agreement for both China’s and the Philippines’s ships to leave Scarborough Shoal peacefully, but China never left. They eventually blocked access to the shoal and filled in a nest of boats around it to ward off foreign fishermen.

“Since [the standoff], we have begun to take measures to seal and control the areas around the Huangyan Island,” Maj. Gen. Zhang Zhaozhong, of China’s People’s Liberation Army, said in a television interview in May, using the Chinese term for Scarborough. (That there are three different names for the same set of uninhabitable rocks tells you much of what you need to know about the region.) He described a “cabbage strategy,” which entails surrounding a contested area with so many boats — fishermen, fishing administration ships, marine surveillance ships, navy warships — that “the island is thus wrapped layer by layer like a cabbage.”

Major General Zhang Zhaozhong

There can be no question that the cabbage strategy is in effect now at Ayungin and has been at least since May. General Zhang, in his interview several months ago, listed Ren’ai Shoal (the Chinese name for Ayungin) in the P.L.A.’s “series of achievements” in the South China Sea. He had already put it in the win column, even though eight Filipino marines still live there. He also seemed to take some pleasure in the strategy. Of taking territory from the Philippines, he said: “We should do more such things in the future. For those small islands, only a few troopers are able to station on each of them, but there is no food or even drinking water there. If we carry out the cabbage strategy, you will not be able to send food and drinking water onto the islands. Without the supply for one or two weeks, the troopers stationed there will leave the islands on their own. Once they have left, they will never be able to come back.”

‘If You Want to Live, Eat’

On the deck of the Sierra Madre, with morning sun slanting off the bright blue water and the crowing of a rooster for a soundtrack, Staff Sgt. Joey Loresto and Sgt. Roy Yanto were improvising. Yanto, a soft-spoken 31-year-old, had lost an arrow spearfishing on the shoal the day before. Now he had pulled the handle off an old bucket and was banging it straight with a rusty mallet in an attempt to make it into a spear. Everything on the Sierra Madre was this way — improvised, repurposed. “Others came prepared,” Loresto said of previous detachments that had been briefed about life on the boat before they arrived and knew they would need to fish to supplement their diet. “But we were not prepared.”

The New York Times has an excellent video explanation of the China-Philippines South China Sea dispute at:




Then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton with China’s Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi, at the Apec Summit November 2011

Wen Jiabao US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton meets Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao on February 21, 2009 in Beijing, China. Clinton is on a three day visit to the Chinese capital, as part of her first diplomatic tour to Asia. (Photo by Oliver Weiken-Pool/Getty Images) *** Local Caption *** Wen Jiabao;Hillary Clinton

Above: US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton meets Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao on February 21, 2009 in Beijing, China.

Photo: Hillary Clinton with China’s President Hu Jintao in September 2012

Above: Then U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and then Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi exchange views on the South China Sea at a news conference in Beijing Sept. 5, 2012. Photo: AP/Feng Li, Pool

Above: China says it has sovereignty over all inside the “Nine Dash Line” as seen here.

Map of South China Sea

China has claimed much of the South China Sea for itself —  claims that have upset many in the region, especially Vietnam and the Philippines. A huge wealth of untapped oil is believed to be below the sea here.

China continues a territorial dispute with Japan in the East China Sea over the islands called the Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China


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