By Madhav Menon
On 05 August 2023, the Philippines Coast Guard released a video of a Chinese Coast Guard vessel blocking the path and firing water cannons at the Philippines supply boat, bringing in new troops, food, water and fuel to a detachment of marines aboard the World War 2 era grounded vessel BRP Sierra Madre. The Philippine Navy confirmed that the supply mission included two boats escorted by the Philippines Navy, the Chinese attempted to advance and block the access of one of the supply vessels, however, the second supply vessel was able to pass through the blockade and complete its resupply mission. The current move by the Chinese is part of a larger series of aggressive posturing, the Chinese have used to intimidate its smaller neighbours.
A China Coast Guard ship (upper left) is seen near the Philippine Navy’s BRP Sierra Madre | Image Source – INQUIRER/NIÑO JESUS ORBETA
The Armed Forces of the Philippines said in a statement that the Chinese Coast Guard ship’s activities against the Philippines supply boat were “in wanton disregard of the safety of the people on board and in violation of international law.” The US State Department also released a press statement saying, “The United States stands with our Philippine allies in the face of dangerous actions by the Coast Guard and maritime militia of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) to obstruct an August 5 Philippine resupply mission to Second Thomas Shoal in the South China Sea.” A week later on 15 August 2023, the US Navy aircraft carrier USS Ronald Raegen conducted flight operations in the Philippines Sea, most likely as a show of force against the Chinese presence in the region and gain confidence of its allies in the South China Sea.
The Philippines in 1999 intentionally ran aground the BRP Sierra Madre on Ayungin Shoal to maintain its territorial claim in the area. This was followed by a permanent detachment of nearly a dozen Filipino marines to provide a continuous military presence in the area. The Philippine Navy occasionally send supply boats to BRP Sierra Madre with food water, fuel and to cycle troops.
Military Expansion in SCS
Ayungin Shoal, also known as Second Thomas Shoal, which is currently militarily administered by the Philippines, is an atoll(A Ring-shaped Island) in the Spratly Island archipelago in the South China Sea. The Island itself which is located in the Philippines Exclusive Economic Zone is claimed by the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia and China. The People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) has been making a considerable push to claim ownership of the entire Spratly Islands for the past decade. This includes setting up man-made Islands in the South China Sea and fully militarizing them with anti-ship missiles, anti-aircraft missile systems, jamming equipment and fighters. The US Indo-Pacific commander Admiral John C Aquilino told the Associated Press that “Over the past 20 years we’ve witnessed the largest military buildup since world war two by the PRC.” Beijing however has claimed that these military bases are for ‘defensive’ purposes to protect its ‘sovereign rights.’ US Navy P-8A Poseidon reconnaissance aircraft that flew over the Chinese-held outposts were often warned by the Chinese, claiming they were in ‘Chinese territory’ and ordered to move away. Admiral Aquilino in addition asserted that the function of those islands was to expand the offensive capability of the PRC beyond their continental shores, as they can fly aircraft in addition to the offensive capabilities of missile systems.
Deep See Mining of Spratley Islands and SCS
One of the primary reasons for the dispute over the Spratly Islands is the economic significance of the region. Oil was initially discovered in the region in 1968, this was shortly followed by claims to the region by the Philippines. China’s geology and mineral resource ministry claims that the oil and natural gas reserves in the region are estimated at 17.7 billion tons. The seabed in the disputed Spratley Islands is also potentially rich in rare earth and precious metals like manganese and cobalt which are key ingredients in advanced technologies like electric car batteries and smartphone components. Chinese experts have also claimed that the new PLAN icebreaker ships under construction will likely be deployed for ‘scientific research’ in the South China Sea for most of the year. The vessels will possess the capability to support comprehensive deep-sea exploration, including tasks such as collecting samples, analyzing environmental data, conducting geological and life science research, as well as testing and deploying deep-sea technology and equipment. Though Deep Sea Mining (DSM) is currently nowhere close to commercial-scale resource production, due to the technological gaps and the costs needed to extract the resources. The investment by the Chinese into DSM probably predicts technological advancement in the future to allow the nation to make it viable to extract rare earth materials from the seabed. China currently dominates the world market in rare earth materials as it produces nearly 70% of the world’s mine production. The Chinese in the future would prefer to maintain their dominance by investing in DSM and gaining access to the Deep sea resources in the South China Sea.
Fisheries and Chinese fishing Fleets
The Spratly Islands are also located in an area with significant marine biodiversity and potential fishing resources. The waters surrounding the islands are known for their marine ecosystems, including coral reefs, fisheries, and various species of marine life. These fishing resources have often attracted the attention of the notorious Chinese fishing fleets. For example, in March 2021, around 200 Chinese fishing vessels were spotted anchored at Whitsun Reef, a disputed territory in the South China Sea, sparking tensions in the Philippines. In July 2023, the Philippines again spotted 48 Chinese fishing vessels guarded by the Chinese coast guard over the Iroquois Reef in the Spratley Islands during patrols around the Philippines Economic Exclusion Zone in the South China Sea. The Washington-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies has said that around 300 Chinese maritime militia vessels are operating in the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea on any given day. The Chinese have also been employing the Chinese fishing vessels in Grey zone tactics, i.e. involving the use of a mix of unconventional tactics to achieve goals without openly escalating to full-scale war.
The dispute over the Spratly Islands is not only about territorial claims but also about control over critical economic resources, including oil, natural gas, rare earth materials, and fishing grounds. As technological advancement allows DSM to be more affordable and profitable the contest around Spratley Islands and the South China Sea is likely to escalate beyond Grey Zone Warfare.