Monday, November 22, 2021

Sabre Rattling Once Again in the South China Sea as Military Supply Boats Attacked

As Ever the Disputed Waters of the Archipelago Subject to Conflict
Shipping News Feature

SOUTH CHINA SEA – There was a strong sense of déà vu over the weekend after an incident last week grew into a full blown international incident when numerous countries came out to openly criticise China for its attack on Philippine supply vessels in the region.

The latest row, yet again, centres on the Chinese claim to sovereignty over the archipelago including the Spratly Islands where ownership is disputed with Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, Vietnam and Brunei, the latest chapter of arguments now stretching back decades, with live rounds being reportedly fired on Vietnamese vessels by Chinese warships as recently as 2011.

In 2014 Chinese vessels attacked a group of Philippine fishermen using water cannons to drive them away from the disputed Scarborough Shoal area and the latest incident was strikingly similar. On this occasion it was Chinese Coast Guard vessels using the same tactics but against two Philippine supply ships destined to service that country’s military ensconced in the area.

The troops are stationed aboard a World War Two ship, the BRP Sierra Madre which has been grounded on the Second Thomas Shoal (or Ayungin Shoal) since 1999 when it was left there deliberately to enable the country to establish its claim to the Spratlys. The supplies on the ships were mainly foodstuffs bound for the deployed marines.

Whilst the Chinese have made some vague, unsubstantiated comments about the Philippine troop contingent being ‘fortified’ the incident has produced a verbal broadside from almost every country concerned, plus many that are not directly involved. The Philippines was granted a 200 mile wide exclusive economic zone for the archipelago in July 2016 by a special arbitral tribunal formed under the auspices of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) following a Filipino request three years previously.

The Spratly Islands consist of around 20 islands and semi-submerged banks and almost 200 submerged reefs, underwater banks and shoals, none of which are currently occupied by the Chinese. Now Philippine politicians of every hue have lined up to criticise this latest act with President Rodrigo Duterte saying:

"We abhor the recent event in the Ayungin Shoal and view with grave concern other similar developments. This does not speak well of the relations between our nations and our partnership.[The] UNCLOS and the 2016 Arbitral Award provide legal clarity pointing us to a just and fair solution to our disputes. We must fully utilise these legal tools to ensure that the South China Sea remains a sea of peace, stability and prosperity."

Canadian Ambassador to the Philippines Peter MacArthur said Canada stands by the arbital decision, with Australian Ambassador to the region Steven Robinson expressing similar sentiments and commenting support for an open and inclusive region, and concern over such attempts to destabilise the area whilst his nation continues to work with Philippine partners on maritime matters.

Ambassador of Japan to the Philippines Koshikawa Kazuhiko said his country strongly opposes any unilateral attempts to change the status quo in the East and South China Seas and Michele Boccoz, ambassador of the French Republic to the Philippines, and German Ambassador to the Philippines Anke Reiffenstuel made a joint statement saying:

“France and Germany share serious concerns on latest incidents caused by three Chinese vessels against two supply boats in the South ChinaSea. We call for China to refrain from conduct that endangers stability in the IndoPacific region and firmly support dialogue between stakeholders on the basis of international law.”

This dispute is of course nothing new with complaints regarding possession of the area dating back into the early 18th century. In fact in 1883 (that’s four years even before the Handy Shipping Guide was first published) when Germany first surveyed the Spratly and Paracel Islands it received an official complaint of trespass from China. Even earlier in 1877 the British had officially claimed the entire archipelago as part of the Empire (nothing new there then).

Japan claimed the whole area for the entirety of the Second World War but with her defeat the Chinese moved swiftly to claim it back making the only really inhabitable island, which it named Taiping, its main base in the area, an island which Taiwan claimed for itself in 2013 after establishing a base on Itu Ab, abandoned in 1950 as a result of the Chinese Civil War but reoccupied in 1956 under the flag of the Republic of China.

It is to be hoped that this latest act by the Chinese is not to be repeated as, with so many players involved, diplomacy is likely to be thin on the ground in a region which is valuable for both its strategic position and the resources to be found in the area. There has been a pattern of reckless environmental damage by various parties for many years.

Dredging of sand by the Chinese is believed to have caused enormous damage to much of the coral reef and military groups in situ have been accused of killing everything from turtles to sea birds with even a reported confiscation in 1994 of some 200 kilogrammes of potassium cyanide, used to poison the waters so the dead and dying fish can be collected, and this in an area which many feel should be a marine conservation area.

Photo: Supplies being airlifted to the grounded hulk of the BRP Sierra Madre (inset) which houses the Philippine marine post.