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TAIPEI — China’s maritime mastery of the South China Sea appears unstoppable. On March 9, Chinese coast guard vessels turned back two Philippine cargo ships attempting to resupply troops based on an eroding WW II-era vessel marooned on the Ayungin Shoal, known as the Renai Shoal to China.


The BRP Sierra Madre was grounded on the shoal sometime in 1999 where it has served as an outpost for Philippine troops and a visible symbol of Manila’s territorial claim to the shoal.


Unable to resupply by sea, the Philippines was able to resupply by air in midweek with a fixed-wing BN-2 Islander light utility aircraft. China claims the ships were carrying more than supplies, and were actually loaded with construction materials for building a larger station on the shoal.


It is unclear whether Manila will be able to maintain the small force of Philippine Marines on the derelict vessel.


Sam Bateman, a specialist on the South China Sea, said China has the capabilities, both naval and coast guard, to prevent resupply by sea of the troops.

南海问题专家Sam Bateman表示,中国海军和海警都有能力阻止对菲军从海上进行的补给。

Manila can do nothing more than continue to resupply its small garrison on the shoal by air,” he said.


Bateman, a fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Singapore, said the presence of two Philippine vessels suggests their mission was more than just resupply, and “they were probably going to support some activity to construct a more permanent facility on the shoal.”

新加坡国际研究所S. Rajaratnam学院的Bateman研究员表示,菲律宾两艘船只的出现显示其任务不只是补给,他们可能是去浅滩为建设一个永久性设施提供支援行动。

If so, this would have been contrary to the ASEAN-China 2002 Declaration on Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, Bateman said.


Since 1999, Beijing has repeatedly demanded that Manila tow away the vessel from the shoal, said Wang Dong, director, School of International Studies, Center for Northeast Asian Strategic Studies, Peking University, Beijing.


Wang said that Manila was responsible for the recent crisis when it sent ships carrying construction materials to the shoal in an “effort to beef up its presence on the shoal by trying to consolidate its dilapidated naval vessel.” He said Manila intentionally triggered the crisis in an effort to “cement US commitment and aid” from both Tokyo and Washington.


Though the Philippines is a US mutual defense partner, Washington could have its hands tied. US diplomat s have repeatedly made clear to all parties that the US would take no side on territorial disputes in the South China Sea.


China’s use of coast guard vessels to enforce Beijing’s territorial claims is a “brilliant strategy as it lowers the tension threshold,” said Ian Storey, an ASEAN specialist at Singapore’s Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.

新加坡东南亚研究院东亚问题专家Ian Storey表示,中国使用海警船只来强化北京的领土主张是一个降低紧张度门槛的睿智战略。

Sources indicate China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy has remain ed on the horizon, literally, in many of the territorial disputes with regional neighbors.


Some may view the use of coast guard vessels to front China’s maritime expansionism campaign as trickery, but Wang said the Philippines used the diversion of the May 1999 US aerial bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade as an opportunity to ground the Sierra Madre.


However, it is unclear exactly when the vessel was grounded in that year.


One approach might be to send US Coast Guard cutters to the Philippines “temporarily to begin to train” their coast guard, said Larry Wortzel, a senior member of the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission. “There should also be a US Navy presence in the background … [and] US and Philippine Coast Guard ships would begin training in the area” of the shoal.

美中经济安全委员会高级委员Larry Wortzel说,一个办法就是派美国海岸警卫队小艇到菲律宾以“暂时开始培训”菲方海警,那样做还应当有美国海军在背后的存在,而且美菲海警应当在浅滩区域进行训练。

However, for the US to provide active support to the Philippines would only add to “ambiguity in the American position and the strategic distrust that currently exists between Washington and Beijing,” Bateman said. The US simply “does not have a dog in this fight,” and “it would be extremely foolish for the US to contemplate any operational support for the Philippines.”