Chinese Maritime Militia Swarms Second Thomas Shoal as Manila Mulls Contingency Plans

December 15, 2023 10:21 PM - Updated: December 18, 2023 10:42 AM
Second Thomas Shoal ©2023 Maxar Technologies Used with Permission

Chinese Maritime Militia vessels swarmed within and around Second Thomas Shoal this week in Beijing’s latest move against the Philippines in the South China Sea.

Eleven Chinese vessels entered the Philippine-occupied shoal on Monday according to the maritime transparency group SeaLight. On Wednesday, the Armed Forces of the Philippines reported that there were four maritime militia vessels within Second Thomas Shoal. Chinese vessels also sailed around the shoal throughout the week, numbering anywhere between five to 27.

While Chinese forces have approached the shoal with rubber-hulled inflatable boats during recent attempts to disrupt Manila’s resupply and rotation missions to its outpost on Second Thomas Shoal, BRP Sierra Madre’s (LS 57), the deployment of larger vessels marks a significant step by China. Ray Powell, director of the SeaLight project at Stanford University’s Gordian Knot Center for National Security Innovation, called the move “unprecedented” and an escalation from China.

These actions follow a series of incidents in the South China Sea, which saw three developments between Philippine and Chinese vessels occur over three days across Manila’s exclusive economic zone. Three Philippine vessels were damaged and a civilian-led Christmas convoy was turned back as a result of Chinese water cannon attacks and dangerous maneuvering.

Western Command (WESCOM) of the Armed Forces of the Philippines stated that this is a recent development by Chinese forces. The commander of Manila’s westernmost military command Vice Adm. Alberto Carlos told ABS-CBN News that Chinese vessels started to enter the shoal for the first time this year. In order to get them out, Philippine marines and sailors aboard Sierra Madre have deployed their own RHIBs to “non-confrontationally drive them away.”

Carlos also highlighted the Philippine military’s contingency planning in the event of a potential escalation by China in a CNN Philippines interview, including a scenario where Chinese forces would resort to boarding and seizure operations.

“Next after the water cannon is probably ramming and also they will attempt to board our vessel, which is something that we will not allow them to do,” said Carlos.

During last weekend’s incidents, China used water cannons and long-range acoustic devices against Philippine vessels and sailors. The WESCOM chief further stated that the Philippines should anticipate more “coercive attacks” from China.

As a result of these concerns, as well as incidents over the last week that saw damage to Philippine vessels, Powell told USNI News that Washington and Manila need to define what constitutes an attack as well as how to properly respond to these escalating Chinese actions.

“The Philippines and the U.S. are going to have to start having some very direct conversations about what constitutes an “armed attack” on a public vessel, and make sure they communicate clearly to Beijing how close China is coming to triggering far more serious consequences,” said Powell.

Powell emphasized that without an adequate response, China will think that “it has more room to escalate than it does.”

“The lack of tangible consequences for its recent aggression is an invitation to more aggression.”Chinese Maritime Militia Swarms Second Thomas Shoal as Manilla Mulls Contingency Plans

Aaron-Matthew Lariosa

Aaron-Matthew Lariosa

Aaron-Matthew Lariosa is a freelance defense journalist based in Washington, D.C.

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