Beijing sends coastguard vessels after Philippine warship runs aground in South China Sea

Navy frigate is stranded on a shoal on the eastern edge of the disputed Spratlys

PUBLISHED : Friday, 31 August, 2018, 9:42pm
UPDATED : Friday, 31 August, 2018, 11:28pm

China has sent coastguard and rescue vessels to help with efforts to retrieve a Philippine Navy warship that ran aground on a shoal in contested waters in the South China Sea.

The BRP Gregorio del Pilar has been stranded on Half Moon Shoal, on the eastern edge of the disputed Spratly Islands, since Wednesday evening.

The reef is claimed by both China and the Philippines, and analysts said the situation may pose a dilemma for Beijing because it could be a reminder of how Manila stepped up its military presence on the Second Thomas Shoal – also in the Spratlys – nearly 20 years ago.

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Chinese coastguard vessels are already at the shoal, while a search-and-rescue ship, Nan Hai Jiu 115, is also on standby in nearby waters, foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said on Friday.

“We are discussing with the Philippine side how we can provide assistance,” Hua said.

The Philippines’ largest naval ship ran aground while on a routine patrol in the region, its Armed Forces said on Thursday.

The propellers were damaged when the ship was “grounded from bow to midship” but no one was injured in the incident, local media said, citing a military report. There were 117 crew members on board at the time.

“It is still there and the navy is still assessing damage before pulling it out,” Philippine defence secretary Delfin Lorenzana said in a message to the Philippine News Agency.

China’s Nan Hai Jiu 115, or “South China Sea Rescue”, was dispatched to the Spratlys in July and has since then been permanently stationed at Subi Reef – the second largest of Beijing’s seven man-made outposts and home to a lighthouse and extensive docking facilities. The ship has a displacement of 4,400 tonnes.

The stranded Gregorio del Pilar is a 3,250-tonne Hamilton-class cutter that the Philippine Navy acquired from the US Coast Guard in 2011. It was then converted into a frigate with a helicopter, 25mm auto-cannon, 76mm cannon and machine guns.

Zhang Mingliang, a Southeast Asia specialist at Jinan University, said the best strategy for China was to “voluntarily provide assistance to pull the vessel out” before the situation changed.

“If China just sits back and watches, there is the possibility this could develop like it did in the case of the BRP Sierra Madre on the Second Thomas Shoal,” Zhang said.

He was referring to the Philippine Navy in 1999 deliberately running aground the second world war-era warship on the disputed shoal. The navy has since stationed Filipino marines on the rusting vessel to maintain its military presence in the contested area, despite Chinese protests and attempts to block supplies from getting through.

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In March 2016, after a Philippine fishing boat became stranded on Jackson Atoll – which is near a Chinese base on Mischief Reef – seven PLA Navy ships blocked access to the site and a tugboat towed away the vessel. The Chinese ships then denied Filipino fishermen access to the area.

That was a few months before Manila won an arbitration case at an international tribunal in The Hague, which ruled that Beijing’s claims to almost all of the South China Sea had no legal basis – a ruling China rejected. As well as the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam also have claims to the resource-rich waterway.

“China can’t react in that kind of hardline way now – instability in the South China Sea would go against Beijing’s interests at a time when tensions are high with the United States, and also while bilateral relations with the [Philippine President Rodrigo] Duterte administration are positive,” Zhang said.

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Half Moon Shoal lies at the intersection of two major sea routes in the eastern part of the South China Sea. A PLA Navy frigate ran aground in the area in 2012 and was rescued by other Chinese vessels 10 days later.