A rusted out hulk is where China’s brazen violence can fail – obviously and in plain sight.

Sternly-worded notes won't prevent Chinese control of 2nd Thomas Shoal. Collective action can. Image: Armed Forces of the Philippines

Written by

Michael Shoebridge

As we watch the brazen violence of the Chinese coastguard around the Philippines’ 2nd Thomas Shoal, we are witnessing a real time policy failure by countries who believe in a Free and Open Indo Pacific and a failure in collective security efforts to deter China from its path of violent aggression as a means of dominating the region.

The Philippines’ allies and partners are offering every assistance short of actual help.

Countries with territory in the South China Sea have been experiencing incremental Chinese encroachment and domination for over two decades now. In all that time, China has not suffered a single reverse.  At best its growing control has stalled in particular places, but it has yet to be rolled back. 

That needs to change if the idea of a Free and Open Indo Pacific is to have any meaning, if core ideas in the UN Charter about the importance of sovereignty and territorial integrity are to operate in the real world, and if the region is not to be dominated by a coercive China that dictates everyone else’s choices.

Whether we are fortunate or not, the time to begin to reverse Chinese momentum is now – and the place to do so is the Philippines’ Second Thomas Shoal, currently held by the rusting hulk of the Sierra Madre, occupied by stoic and determined Philippines Marines.

Beijing’s plan to take control of this chunk of Philippines’ territory is pretty clear – and being executed violently and brazenly now by its militarised Chinese Coastguard.  They are attempting to prevent the Philippines outpost from being resupplied and repaired, with the goal of starving out the Philippines personnel and having the rusting out grounded ship become uninhabitable and fall apart. At that point, the Philippines will lose de facto control of this piece of their sovereign territory and Beijing will take control.

This will happen despite the incredible courage and impeccable professionalism of Philippines Navy, Coast Guard and Marines personnel both on their outpost and in the small ships and rigid inflatable hull boats that are continuing to push through increasingly violent Chinese Coastguard vessels and personnel. As Philippines President Marcos has said, Philippines personnel confronted by the Chinese have ‘exercised the greatest restraint amidst intense provocation,” noting “We stand firm. Our calm and peaceful disposition should not be mistaken for acquiescence.”

 The Chinese have ratcheted up their efforts to prevent resupply and repair from using powerful watercannons to obstruct and damage Philippines’ vessels to now direct ramming and use of axes and clubs against Philippines personnel and vessels.

Allies and partners of the Philippines have reacted by putting out diplomatic statements of concern and condemning China’s actions.  And nations like Canada, Japan and the US have increased joint patrols and other maritime cooperation with the Philippines to assert freedom of navigation and uphold Philippines’ sovereignty and international law.

But these fine words and joint actions have had two defining feature: they have left the Philippines alone in dealing with the confrontations with China, and they have done nothing to make Beijing change its course from one of increasingly violent and obvious efforts to seize control of Second Thomas Shoal. 

China’s policies and use of the PLA have put these states on the defensive, attempting to protect the “status quo” in various areas but suffering incremental reversals. Wholly defensive stances with periodic incremental reversals are psychologically difficult to maintain, as well as difficult to unify around.  So, something new needs to happen to reverse Chinese momentum.

What can be done?

Dealing with China successfully starts with the realisation that this is not a job for single nations like the Philippines or Australia – it needs to be a collective effort by several of us together and a necessary member of any group is the United States.

Any action taken collectively needs to be centred in core principles and interests and able to be justified to the wider world using these same foundational reasons. 

And, lastly, any action taken must obviously and physically reverse the momentum of growing Chinese control in the region and demonstrate that Chinese policy and action can fail – obviously and in plain sight.

Reinforcing the Philippines’ sovereign control of its territory of Second Thomas Shoal is the opportunity to achieve these results.  The Philippines’ sovereignty over the territory was put beyond doubt in the 2016 Arbitral Tribunal case the Philippines brought against China.  That case also ended any shred of legitimacy China could claim to this territory under international law as set out in the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.

So, countries helping the Philippines defeat Chinese attempts to end Philippines occupation and control of the outpost on the shoal will be doing what our leaders have all been saying they believe in – upholding international law and the principle of state sovereignty that is embodied in the UN Charter. 

The rubber needs to hit the road for this to happen, though.  And here’s how.  The United States, Japan, Australia and the Philippines have begun meeting together and working on maritime security in the face of the growing challenge of China.  They’ve started to be called “The Squad” – after that other minilateral group including India, Japan the US and Australia – the Quad.

The Squad nations can buy a disused offshore oil and gas exploration platform or similar existing structure and tow it to the Second Thomas Shoal to replace the rusting out Sierra Madre.  A platform of this type has the advantages of being available, durable and usually able to be resupplied by helicopter, not just the sea.  It will create a new physical reality where Philippines’ control of their territory can endure for the next twenty years, instead of watching an already decrepit Sierra Madre visibly deteriorate and fail now.

And the navies and Air Forces of these four nations can collectively resupply and defend the new Philippines outpost, turning the current situation where China is able to bully the smaller Phillipines state and military into one where Beijing is instead confronting four powerful partners operating to uphold international law.

Instead of small Philippines’ inflatable boats trying to resupply the embattled Marines on the shoal, the vessels and aircraft doing these missions can come from each of the ‘Squad’ nations, and vessels of whatever partner can carry ‘seariders’ from the other Squad members, so that China faces the choice of confronting all the partners every time it considers getting out the axes, knives and water cannons.

A determined, public collective action like this by key democratic partners in the Indo Pacific is desperately needed to show that Chinese coercion and violence can fail.  And seeing Chinese Foreign Ministry and State media voices try desperately to rail against efforts by Japan, the Philippines, the US and Australia that are so clearly in the spirit of upholding state sovereignty, international law and freedom of navigation would be more likely to alienate China’s most important audience in the Global South, while also cheering up anyone who actually believes in these values and principles.

It’s time to put our actions where are values and interests are.  The region is lucky Beijing has chosen the wrong place and the wrong time to advance its theft of others’ territories.  

We can watch a rusty hulk fall apart while Chinese forces injure and kill brave Filipinos who we all cheer on passively from the sidelines, or we can act in support of their bravery. Let’s take the opportunity to reset the regional dynamics in favour of freedom.

A summary of this article was published in The Australian on 23 June.

This article is drawn from a longer report by the National Bureau of Asian Research (NBR) published in May 2024, available here.