A handful of Marines living on the BRP Sierra Madre, a World War 2-era ship that is grounded on a remote, tiny reef, the Second Thomas Shoal, is the Philippines’ last line of defense against China’s efforts to control most of the West Philippine Sea or the South China Sea.
The soldiers are stationed on Second Thomas Shoal in the Spratly Islands aboard the former US tank-landing vessel that was deliberately abandoned there to serve as a base, according to their former commander, Lt. Gen. Juancho Sabban.
“Their lives are very hard…but they are Marines. They are used to that kind of thing,” said the retired general, former head of Armed Forces Western Command that has jurisdiction over the area. “There is no ground, they live on a grounded ship. They depend only on supplies that are delivered to them on logistics runs.”
The shoal and the lives of the troops guarding it were thrust into the global spotlight this week after the Philippines said a Chinese warship was “illegally and provocatively” circling the area.
It was the latest in a series of aggressive steps by China in recent years to assert its claim over the West Philippine Sea that have rattled the Philippines, with others, including the Chinese occupation of Panatag Shoal.
China said it has sovereign rights over nearly all of the West Philippine Sea, even waters far away from its main landmass and approaching the coasts of Southeast Asian countries.
The Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, and Taiwan also claim parts of the sea, and the area, has, for decades, been regarded as a potential trigger for major military conﬂict in the region.
Dozens of Vietnamese soldiers died in losing battles in 1974 and 1988 with Chinese forces for control of islands in the sea, which are believed to sit atop reserves of oil and gas worth billions of dollars.
The Spratlys archipelago, which has hundreds of islands, reefs, and atolls, is one of the most hotly contested areas of the sea. All claimants, except Brunei, station troops on various sized islands and atolls in the Spratlys to back their claims. The Philippines occupies nine of the Spratlys, including Thitu island, the second-largest in the area.
Second Thomas Shoal is a tiny group of islets and reefs about 200 kilometers (120 miles) northwest of Palawan, the nearest major landmass. Resupply ships take between 36 and 40 hours to reach it, depending on the weather.
Eugenio Bito-onon, mayor of Kalayaan, Palawan, described the shoal as an eight-kilometerlong, oblong-shaped coral reef that barely rises above the water. “It sinks at high tide,” Bito-onon said.
The BRP Sierra Madre, a 100meter (328-foot) amphibious vessel built for the United States in 1944 and acquired by the Filipino navy in 1976, was deliberately grounded in the late 1990s to shelter the garrison, according to Bito-onon. (AFP)
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