South China Sea: if pushed, would Beijing build a naval outpost on Second Thomas Shoal too?

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By Blegug Nan

Asean is straining to make peace with its recent statement calling for restraint and trust-building; the regional grouping of Southeast Asian nations seems at its wit’s end.

Meanwhile, the United States, Japan, Australia and the European Union have voiced support for the Philippines. There is, however, still a great deal of uncertainty surrounding the extent to which the US would intervene, under what circumstances and in what manner.

Where will this dispute lead? What new developments might unfold this year? Can China and the Philippines work towards some kind of tacit understanding and ease tensions?

There are several scenarios. One possibility is that Manila installs a “ permanent structure” at Second Thomas Shoal to replace the rusting BRP Sierra Madre warship run aground there. Funding has now been approved.
South China Sea: if pushed, would Beijing build a naval outpost on Second Thomas Shoal too?
The grounded Philippine navy ship BRP Sierra Madre, where marines are stationed to assert Manila’s territorial claims at Second Thomas Shoal in the Spratly Islands in the disputed South China Sea, seen on April 23. Photo: AFP
But this approach is likely to provoke a strong backlash from Beijing. Since the Philippine navy beached the warship Sierra Madre on Second Thomas Shoal in 1999, China has treated it as an accident and a temporary state of affairs, not a formal occupation of the shoal.

The ship’s presence on the shoal is, in any case, not sustainable as the deteriorating state of the vessel will inevitably lead to its natural collapse – which Beijing presumably hopes will occur without tensions escalating further, thus causing Manila’s military foothold to disappear.

But any permanent structure by Manila would potentially go against the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, a non-binding agreement between Asean and China established in 2002. Article 5 of the code calls for “self-restraint”, including “refraining from action of inhabiting on the presently uninhabited islands, reefs, shoals, cays and other features”.
Should this commitment be blatantly breached, it could spur a new round of occupation activities on uninhabited islands and reefs, leading to heightened tensions and plunging the South China Sea into deeper chaos.

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Philippines sets up ‘game changer’ monitoring station on island in disputed South China Sea

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The second potential outcome is that Beijing seizes an opportunity to dismantle the BRP Sierra Madre. The likelihood of this occurring, however, is low. Despite China continuing to negotiate for the Philippines to tow it away, there have been no indications that Beijing will take direct action to remove the wreck.
Possible reasons include the exacerbation of Sino-Philippine tensions that might result from such action and the fact the BRP Sierra Madre remains an active vessel on the Philippine naval list. Any direct action by Beijing against the ship may provoke US defence alliance obligations and risk a direct confrontation between China and the United States.

Moreover, Beijing has waited nearly 25 years, and with the possibility of the BRP Sierra Madre disintegrating soon, it may be in no rush to act. There is some uncertainty, however, over whether the Philippines has completed reinforcements and refurbishments inside the crippled warship.

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A third scenario would be a continuation of the status quo, with some new developments. The completion of reinforcements and refurbishments inside the ship would mean Manila’s long-term garrison at Second Thomas Shoal would be unaffected even if the ship’s hull disintegrated.

This would imply that the cat-and-mouse game surrounding the Philippine navy’s supply rotation could become protracted. Beijing might adjust its interception actions against routine resupply missions according to changes in bilateral relations – escalating or relaxing its response.

But this would generally be unfavourable for Beijing, which could be perceived as having lost another reef, adding pressure on policymakers amid a narrative of maintaining the integrity of Chinese territories passed down by ancestors.

The fourth possibility is a continuation and development of the third scenario, where two small military outposts might emerge on Second Thomas Shoal.

Should the Philippines complete a permanent fortification of the BRP Sierra Madre, Beijing might also establish corresponding fixed structures on Second Thomas Shoal based on the principle of reciprocal retaliation.

For now, the probability of Beijing conducting large-scale land reclamation projects on Second Thomas Shoal is low, given the extensive time, cost and international backlash this could well provoke. But constructing fixed installations near the BRP Sierra Madre on Second Thomas Shoal remains within the realms of possibility.

The question, then, is: could the emergence of two military outposts on Second Thomas Shoal bring a certain balance of power to the situation and eventually lead to some stability?

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Second Thomas Shoal may well be a litmus test for the wisdom of decision-makers on both sides and their policy limits, and could be a predictor of the prospects for and direction of the South China Sea issue.

In my view, the chances of a tacit agreement between China and the Philippines in the short term are low, given the limited space for policy concessions in both countries. The most likely outcome could be the fortification of the BRP Sierra Madrea into a stable, permanent military outpost at Second Thomas Shoal, prompting China to rapidly install a small fixed facility there in retaliation.

Zheng Zhihua is an associate professor and head of the East Asia Marine Policy Project, at the Centre for Japanese Studies, Shanghai Jiao Tong University, Shanghai

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