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A rusty old ship isn't worth sinking regional stability

Reality Check


Editor's note: What would happen if the Philippines keeps up its circus tricks in the South China Sea? Take a look at this episode of Reality Check and see for yourself how provocation and betrayal are going to hurt not just the Philippines, but the interest of all its neighbors.

It's like a badly-written fiction made into reality, trying to claim sovereignty over a region by turning a rusty old boat into a permanent military outpost.

That's the Philippines for you. Let's start with the basics: The ship was intentionally grounded there. In 1999, the Philippines ran the BRP Sierra Madre aground in the waters around Ren'ai Jiao. According to many media outlets, including Bloomberg and CNN, it was designed to serve as the Philippines' outpost in the region and establish its sovereignty over the waters.

As a humanitarian gesture, China allowed the Philippines to deliver necessary life supplies to the crew on the ship. According to the former presidential spokesperson of the Philippines Rigoberto Tiglao, then-President Joseph Estrada's administration committed with China to remove the ship from the region. Former Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo was said to have made similar promises. According to the South China Morning Post, then-Philippine Defense Secretary Orlando Mercado was quoted in a 1999 press conference saying that the Philippines are doing their best to repair the ship and that "this will be done in compliance with our policy that no new structures [will be built] in the area." He was also quoted saying that he has assured China "that appropriate steps have been undertaken to assess the extent of damage to the vessels [and] efforts will be made to immediately extract the vessels from the shoal."

The Philippines didn't fulfill the promise. Worse, it did exactly the opposite of what they promised. Over 2023, the Philippines have made repeated attempts to sail into the region and supply the grounded ships without Chinese approval. In August, the Philippines attempted to bring construction materials to Ren'ai Jiao. The China Coast Guard (CCG) had to block and fire water cannons at the two vessels to stop them. The Chinese Foreign Ministry urged the Philippines to immediately tow away the grounded ship. In October, two Philippine vessels disregarded CCG's warning and went into the region. It resulted in the vessels bumping into CCG ships and fishing vessels. In December, a Philippine ship carrying construction materials similarly collided with a CCG vessel.

More than two decades after the BRP Sierra Madre was "stranded" on Ren'ai Jiao, the Philippines is allocating money to build it into a permanent structure. "A shelter for fishermen from all nations who might get caught in bad weather" was the excuse. Associate Professor at the Institute of International Relations of the China Foreign Affairs University Zha Wen said that "President Marcos is indeed facing pressure as the South China Sea issue remains the biggest challenge in the two countries' relationship. Nationalism has been running high in the Philippines in recent years, which is not conducive to cooperation. People might perceive any move to cooperate as a betrayal of sovereignty." Anna Rosario Malindog-Uy, Vice President of External Affairs of the Asian Century Philippines Strategic Studies Institute, said "a miscalculation in the South China Sea between the Philippines and China, especially when there would be a confrontation or collision of ships because of the escalating tension, is not good for the region, not just for the two countries."

What's worse for the two countries and the region is the envelope-pushing by the Philippines. From the beginning, the ship was deliberately put there to help the Philippines claim sovereignty over the region. And Philippines's claim over the issue changed from making promises to remove the ship, to in a low-key fashion trying to keep it there, and now brazenly attempting to turn it into a permanent construction. China and the ASEAN are negotiating a South China Sea Code of Conduct, a document intended to keep enduring peace and stability in the region. As a major power in ASEAN, the Philippines' actions undermine the effort and the interests of not just China, but of all its neighbors as well.

(If you want to contribute and have specific expertise, please contact us at opinions@cgtn.com. Follow @thouse_opinions on Twitter to discover the latest commentaries in the CGTN Opinion Section.)

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