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Why the rusting wreck of a second world war ship is so important to China

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Over the past two decades, China has emerged as a global economic powerhouse, undergoing a transformation that extends beyond its economic prowess. China’s pursuit of enhanced military capabilities, particularly in far-sea naval projection, has been equally remarkable.

This expansion of China’s naval power projection capabilities, while unsurprising from a realist perspective, has raised profound questions about its true intentions and the resulting implications for global maritime security.The BRP Sierra Madre, a World War II-era ship deliberately grounded by the Philippines in 1999, is deteriorating rapidly, posing a growing challenge amid the contentious South China Sea disputes. Located in the Spratly Islands on Second Thomas Shoal, the Sierra Madre is effectively a shipwreck, with rust and holes compromising its structure. Defense experts question its durability, prompting difficult decisions for the Philippines and potential implications for the United States, which has a mutual defense treaty with Manila, considering the strategic importance of the South China Sea.

Efforts by the Philippines to supply a few marines stationed on the ship have been repeatedly thwarted by China, which insists on the ship's removal. Beijing seems to be waiting for the Sierra Madre to crumble, leaving the shoal unoccupied. Recent maritime confrontations, including collisions between Philippine and Chinese vessels during resupply missions, have escalated tensions.


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The Sierra Madre holds deep symbolic value for the Philippines, representing the extent of their sovereignty and sovereign rights. However, the logistical challenges of bringing construction materials to repair the ship are considerable due to its location and the effective blockade by China. The ship's single, narrow entrance can be easily blocked, and Chinese vessels can swiftly deploy from nearby Mischief Reef.

The situation has deteriorated to a level not seen since 2014, when the Philippines resorted to airdrops to overcome a Chinese-imposed blockade. Joint patrols with the US and other partners have been proposed, but these options raise complex questions and risks of heightened tensions. The Philippines has also strengthened ties with Japan and Australia.

With the Sierra Madre's deteriorating condition, its potential collapse could be imminent, causing concerns about its future. Some suggest the Philippines might consider running another vessel aground at a nearby shoal and moving troops to a more suitable atoll to start afresh. The uncertain future of the Sierra Madre and the escalating tensions in the South China Sea underscore the need for careful diplomacy and strategy in this long-running dispute.


Source: The Guardian