The Philippines government has begun efforts to reinforce the tiny outpost of BRP Sierra Madre, a dilapidated World War II-era landing ship deliberately beached on Second Thomas Shoal in 1999. Due in no small part to extensive media coverage, the vessel is a well-known symbol of the ongoing territorial dispute over the mineral- and resource-rich Spratleys Island group.
Since the grounding, the Philippines has rotated a small group of marines to occupy and report on the shoal; seen as vital to the Philippines activity since China began ramping up their island expansion in the region.
In a bit of political subterfuge, BRP Sierra Madre remains a commissioned vessel in the navy, making it an official extension of Philippine sovereign territory, despite the fact the hull is no longer seaworthy. The conditions aboard are harsh—the corrosive effects of the saltwater environment have eaten away at the vessel; there are safety and habitability concerns everywhere. Planks cover enormous holes in the decks, and makeshift shelters are built into what’s left of the superstructure. The marines rely upon a limited supply of consumables; lightly armed, the outpost would not be able to resist a determined attack. At least two China coast guard cutters hover nearby, eager to interdict any resupply attempts to the beleaguered outpost.
For years, Manila maintained the official stance that it would not escalate the situation at Second Thomas Shoal, nor anywhere else in the contested area per the so-called Declaration of Conduct. While relying upon a long-awaited arbitration reading from a U.N. tribunal on China’s actions, the Philippine outposts within the Spratleys were kept in status quo; no expansions, or even maintenance to the infrastructure were made. The nation made it painfully clear that it was abiding by the rules, even as other regional players scrambled to consolidate their presence. While this deferral was quite public, it’s fair to say that much of it was related to budgetary and logistical constraints as much as political hand-wringing.
The acceleration of Chinese encroachment has changed the situation again. With Mischief Reef only 15 miles away from Second Thomas Shoal, the Philippine navy has quietly begun “maintenance” of the Sierra Madre. Reportedly, cement, welding tools and other reinforcing materials were brought in via several shipments that made it past the Chinese blockade. The effort, which the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs considers to be legal, has garnered China’s ire.
Improvements to shelter aside, the outpost still has to deal with habitability challenges, including a lack of organic ability to generate electricity and fresh water. In order to continue sustaining the outpost, some recent and forthcoming defense acquisitions could help. Former Australian landing craft and a brand new support vessel arriving in 2016 would bring much needed faster, far-ranging and heavier lift to sustain the blockade runs. Air drops, currently executed by aging Philippine air force Norman-Britten Islander transports, could be relieved by newer NC-212s under construction in Indonesia.
Overall, the drama of reinforcing BRP Sierra Madre is not the endgame, only a move in a larger match. A favorable outcome of the Philippines’ so-called lawfare approach, via the tribunal court, would finally put a legal stake in the ground that China’s actions are illegal. It would then fall heavily upon Beijing to either prove it’s a worthy international partner by abiding and agreeing to external arbitration, or continue on its path of the South China Sea claims, to the detriment of future relations within the region.