This post summarizes one of nine case studies included in CSIS’s new report, Countering Coercion in Maritime Asia: The Theory and Practice of Gray Zone Deterrence. The full case study is also available for download here. (Principal case study researcher: Jake Douglas)
In May 2013, China increased its presence near a Philippine outpost in the South China Sea. Chinese coast guard and other vessels were spotted only a few miles from Second Thomas Shoal. Since 1999, Philippine marines have occupied a dilapidated warship—the BRP Sierra Madre—atop this coral atoll in the disputed Spratly Islands. Manila’s foreign affairs department protested the onset of continuous Chinese patrols, calling them “provocative and illegal.” Other leaders acknowledged that Beijing could not be lawfully denied freedom of navigation around the reef, but still feared for the safety of Manila’s supply lines to its dilapidated garrison.
Some Chinese commentators portrayed Beijing as pursuing a methodical “cabbage strategy” to “seal and control” contested territories like Second Thomas. Authoritative official voices, on the other hand, consistently framed China’s actions as reactive and status quo oriented. In particular, Beijing dismissed any charges that it sought to “cut off supplies of water and food.”
Instead, Chinese forces were said to be “monitor[ing]” whether the Philippines was transporting building materials to the shoal. China has repeatedly complained that in 1999 Philippine president Joseph Estrada promised to tow away the Sierra Madre, blaming the grounding on a “malfunction.” President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo also pledged in 2003 not to “construct [new] facilities.” Nevertheless, since 2011 there had been increasing signs that Manila hoped to consolidate the deteriorating shipwreck into a more permanent installation.
To “avoid confrontation,” the Philippine Navy started contracting civilian ships to bring supplies to Second Thomas. It was successfully re-provisioned in June and November 2013. Still, the China Coast Guard (CCG) began sailing closer in July; by August they were sailing only a few hundred yards beyond the breakers. U.S. military aircraft were also reported to be surveilling the area, reflecting growing concern in Washington. China’s presence off the shoal eventually abated with the landfall of a major typhoon.
Meanwhile, the Philippines prepared to submit a memorial in its high-profile South China Sea case against Beijing. In January 2014, China extended an olive branch. In return for Manila suspending its arbitration bid, Beijing pledged to withdraw from Scarborough Shoal and boost investments in the Philippines. The CCG resumed constant sentry duty near the Sierra Madre while the Philippine cabinet debated this bargain in mid-February. Manila ultimately decided the deal was not credible or “enough.” In quick succession, Philippine officials announced that they would make their court submission by the end of March, leaked the rebuffed offer to the press, and invited four other claimants to join the case.
In March, China disrupted a supply operation to Second Thomas for the first time. On March 9, CCG cutters intercepted two Philippine logistics ships headed toward the shoal. The exact details are scarce; China was said to have “blocked” or even “expelled” the vessels. This was widely reported as a “blockade,” but there is no evidence that the CCG resorted to force beyond using sirens and megaphones. Intimidated, the Philippine ships beat a hasty retreat to nearby Palawan.
Beijing defended this “necessary response” by claiming that the Philippine vessels “were loaded with construction materials.” China argued that this violated the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (which banned inhabiting then-unoccupied features) and demanded the Philippines end its “illegal” presence. Manila fired back on March 11, condemning Beijing’s “interference” with a routine “rotation and resupply” mission. Other sources, however, suggested the cargo did contain materials for “repairs” and “improvements.” Implicitly, the Philippines was seeking to differentiate between reinforcing a rusty outpost and erecting “new” structures.
On March 12, Manila received its first gesture of U.S. support. The State Department criticized China’s “provocative” interference “with the maintenance of the status quo” at “the Philippine outpost at Second Thomas Shoal,” which had “existed since before the  Declaration.” This was a noteworthy statement because at this point not even the Philippines openly recognized the Sierra Madre as an official garrison.
It finally did so two days later. Manila publicly acknowledged that it deliberately “placed” the warship on the shoal in 1999 to “serve as a permanent Philippine government installation.” This “shocking” admission set off a flurry of recriminations in Beijing. Philippine Navy aircraft also acted immediately to resupply Second Thomas. Manila conducted two airdrops of basic provisions during March, but most analysts agreed this could not sustain the marines for long. On March 24, U.S. president Barack Obama expressed opposition to Chinese president Xi Jinping about any use of force at the shoal.
In the end, Manila felt it had no choice but to reattempt a mission by sea. Two ships left Palawan early on March 28. They carried only food, water, and fresh marines, as well as a large group of Filipino and Western reporters to “observe for transparency.” Everyone was forced to pile into one of the two ships, the BRP Fort San Antonio, later that day when a broken propeller disabled the M/V Unnaizah May.
Passengers aboard the Fort San Antonio began noticing military aircraft circling overheard on the morning of March 29. Philippine, Chinese, and U.S. aircraft, including a P-8A Poseidon, all flew low enough to be identified. As the Fort San Antonio approached Second Thomas Shoal that afternoon, two China Coast Guard cutters appeared on the horizon (other Chinese ships may have been deployed farther afield). The larger CCG 3401 steamed to within 200 yards while the smaller ship held back.
CCG 3401 began continually blaring its air horn and crossed the Fort San Antonio’s bow. Now only 70 yards away, it ordered the Philippines to “stop immediately, stop all illegal activities, and leave.” Personnel on the supply ship waved peace signs while the journalists recorded the event. This standoff lasted an hour, until the Philippine ship took an opportunity to reach shallower waters around the reef, into which the larger Chinese cutters could not follow safely. The Philippines was described as having “slipped past” or “evaded” a “blockade,” although the CCG seems to have made no movements to pursue. After replenishing the Sierra Madre, the supply ship managed to depart the next day without incident.
Chinese patrols in the vicinity have continued since March 2014 and Philippine maintenance vessels are still occasionally intercepted. However, there have been no reports of coercive actions like blocking or ramming, even when it became public in 2015 that Manila was undertaking major renovations to the Sierra Madre.
The harassment of Philippine forces at Second Thomas Shoal was one of the most dangerous South China Sea crises in recent years. Some of the lessons from this incident include:
- First, divergent perceptions of the status quo were a major contributor to insecurity in this complex dispute.
- Second, risk-acceptant actions by the Philippines and the United States may have helped to deter China from further escalation.
- Third, using foreign journalists to raise the reputational stakes appeared to work in Manila’s favor, but making Beijing lose face could also have easily backfired.
For more articles in this series, please visit our Countering Coercion in Maritime Asia Report page.