How Can a Decaying Warship Cause Tension in the South China Sea?

In the midst of the South China Sea lies a run-down and rusted naval vessel that looks like a ghost ship. It appears to be an abandoned craft far from operating, but believe it or not, it is a home for a small number of people.

This dilapidated warship is the BRP Sierra Madre, which was deliberately run aground on the tiny reef in the South China Sea, known as the Second Thomas Shoal, by the Philippine government in 1999.

A small contingent of troops from the Philippines stay on board to stake the nation’s claim in the highly contested water, as it serves not just as a military outpost but as an extension of the Philippines’ sovereignty in the West Philippine Sea.

Consistently, this corroding ship has been cited as the source of hostility between Beijing and Manila in their fight for territorial claims in the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea.

Recently, the BRP Sierra Madre captured international attention when the Chinese Coast Guard intercepted and used water cannon on Philippine vessels attempting to resupply goods to the soldiers aboard the ageing ship.

The event took place on August 5, 2023, and in its aftermath, China has urged the Philippines to remove the ship.

In response, the Philippine government stressed, they never will.

BRP Sierra Madre in Second Thomas Shoal. Photo: Benar News.

The Rusting Ship's Glory Days

The BRP Sierra Madre’s tale can be summed up in two wars, three nations, five designations, and a span of seven decades.

Constructed in the United States in 1944, this vessel was one of the many Landing Ship Tanks (LST) produced for World War II, bearing the identifier LST-821.

Shortly after being constructed, LST-821 was commissioned and undertook missions in the Pacific Theatre, transporting supplies to key Western Pacific locations like Eniwetok, Okinawa, Iejima, Ulithi, and Guam.

The ship earned one battle star for her service in the Second World War.

Post-war, LST-821 returned to the U.S., where she was decommissioned and set aside in reserve by 1946.

In 1955, all LST were bestowed with official names linked to U.S. counties.

LST-821 was consequently renamed USS Harnett County.

Top pic: LTS-821 docked in the Pacific Theatre during World War II. Bottom pic: The upgraded USS Harnett County. Photos: U.S.Naval Institute.

After over a decade in reserve, in 1966, the USS Harnett County was reactivated and, along with other LSTs like Garett County (LST-786), Hunterdon County (LST-838), and Jennings County (LTS-846), was sent to Vietnam during the Vietnam War.

She underwent modifications to serve as a floating base in the Mekong Delta, a component of the Mobile Riverine Force. Equipped to support ten River Patrol Boats and two gunships, the USS Harnett County could also offer direct fire assistance using 40mm guns.

A year later, the ship received a new designation as a Patrol Craft Tender (AGP-821) and continued in this capacity until 1969.

Throughout her tenure in Vietnam, the crew of the USS Harnett County was honoured with two Presidential Unit Citations for their "exceptional valor."

By 1970, the vessel was formally handed over to the Republic of Vietnam Navy, the naval branch of the South Vietnamese military, under the provisions of the U.S. Military Assistance Programme.

Under the South Vietnamese, the craft was renamed RVNS My Tho (HQ-800).

South Vietnamese Navy on My Tho deck. Photo. U.S. Naval Institute.

The My Tho played an active role in the riverine warfare for the South Vietnamese Navy until early 1975.

As Saigon was on the brink of collapse, My Tho rescued 3,000 Vietnamese refugees and fled the country. She later joined a fleet of 31 other South Vietnamese Navy vessels, and eventually meeting up with the USS Kirk.

Conditions aboard in My Tho were dire, with dwindling food and medical supplies. In spite of all the struggles, the convoy fortunately reached Subic Bay in the Philippines to disembark the refugees.

However, a complication arose. Under former President Ferdinand Marcos Sr., the Philippine government already backed away from its support for the South Vietnamese and began forging ties with North Vietnam, recognising the communist regime as the legitimate ruler of the entire nation.

Marcos Sr. also refused to accept the South Vietnamese ships and demanded their return.

The U.S. stepped in and negotiated with the Philippine government, invoking a clause from the U.S. Military Assistance Programme. This clause mandated that if a beneficiary nation, in this instance, the Republic of South Vietnam, ceased using the donated equipment, it should revert to U.S. custody.

RVNZ My Tho with 3,000 Vietnamese refugees on board. Photo: U.S. Naval Institute.

Subsequently, an agreement was reached allowing the vessels to anchor at Subic Bay, under the stipulation that the South Vietnamese flag should be removed and hoist the U.S. Navy's.

The ship moored in Subic Bay until April 1976. Later, the Philippine Navy acquired My Tho, and renamed her the BRP Dumagat (AL-57).

Eventually, she was renamed for the last time as the BRP Sierra Madre (LT-57), in honour of the Philippines' longest mountain range.

Her Journey to the South China Sea

In 1995, China took control of the Mischief Reef in the disputed Spratly Islands of the South China Sea, a territory being claimed by the Philippines. Notably, this reef is located within the Philippines' exclusive economic zone (EEZ), as set forth under the international convention.

Apart from the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam also lay claim to Mischief Reef.

In response to China's actions, in 1999, former Philippine President Joseph Estrada directed the military to run aground the BRP Sierra Madre at the Second Thomas Shoal (known in the Philippines as Ayungin Shoal and in China as Ren'ai Reef) in the Spratly Islands, another area disputed between the two countries.

From that point onward, the BRP Sierra Madre has remained stationed there, with Filipino marines consistently on board.

Through the years, the vessel has deteriorated but has maintained its significance as the Philippine’s outpost.

To provide for the marines stationed on the ship, the Philippine Coast Guard conducts frequent resupply missions. Yet, since 2014, Chinese patrol vessels in the vicinity have attempted to block these missions, and in some cases, to a point of aggression.

Tensions in the region never stop, despite the 2016 ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, which ruled China's expansive nine-dash-line claim over the South China Sea has no legal basis.

Nevertheless, Beijing has neither acknowledged nor adhered to the verdict.

Instead, it has persisted with its military activities in the disputed waters.

Caught on camera, a Chinese Coast Guard vessel used water cannons at the Philippine Coast Guard's boats conducting resupply mission on August 5, 2023. Photo: Philippine Coast Guard.

Returning to the water cannon incident on August 5, one of the two Philippine vessels retreated from its mission to deliver supplies to the BRP Sierra Madre due to a confrontation with the Chinese Coast Guard.

Following this occurrence, the Philippines lodged a diplomatic protest against China.

The global community, including New Zealand, was quick to voice their apprehensions. The New Zealand Embassy in Manila issued a statement on the matter, urging all involved parties to resolve the conflict in a peaceful manner.

However, China remains unfazed.

Beijing asserted that their actions were reasonable, labelling the water cannon usage a "restraint measure" and "necessary" as per Zhou Zhiyong, the deputy chief mission of the Chinese Embassy in Manila.

In China’s perspective, it is the Philippines that’s infringing upon their territory.

Zhou Zhiyong elaborated that the Philippines was not merely transporting goods but also constructing materials for the BRP Sierra Madre, which pushed the Chinese Coast Guard to use a water cannon.

He said, “Regrettably, in defiance of the repeated dissuasion and warning from the Chinese side, the Philippine side insisted on transporting construction materials to the 'grounded' vessel for overhaul and reinforcement with the intent of permanently occupying Ren'ai Reef.”

China Coast Guard took warning law-enforcement measures and stopped the vessel carrying construction materials. I believe you have also noticed that the other Philippine resupply vessel entered the lagoon of Ren'ai Reef, and performed its humanitarian resupply mission. This showed the restraint and humanitarian spirit of the Chinese side," he added. 

Troops on board of BRP Sierra Madre raising the Philippine flag. Photo: Armed Forces of the Philippines.

Countering Zhou Zhiyong’s remarks, Raymond Powell, a security expert and Director of SeaLight Gordian Knot Center for National Security Innovation from Stanford University, posited that China’s actions are “part of a broader strategy to gain control of the shoal.”

In an interview, Powell stated, “The reason they [China] are blocking the [resupply mission] to BRP Sierra Madre is because they want to make it uninhabitable… So, eventually, once the Philippine Navy leaves the BRP Sierra Madre, whether it breaks up, slides off the shoal, simply becomes untenable, that gives China essentially possession of the shoal.”

The Armed Forces of the Philippines argue that they have the right to transport construction materials to BRP Sierra Madre for minor repairs to make the vessel habitable for the crew stationed there.

In another interview, General Romeo Brawner Jr., chief of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, stressed that: “What we are doing right now is we are just maintaining that outpost."

"Even if China tells us not to repair it, that is a commissioned ship of the Philippine Navy. So, we have the right to repair it to make the ship livable for our troops.”

BRP Sierra Madre grounded in Second Thomas Shoal. Photo: Naval History Magazine.

In addition, China also alluded to an alleged promise made by the Philippines to remove the deteriorating vessel, a claim that Philippine officials refute.

Philippine president Ferdinand "Bongbong" Marcos Jr. clarified that there was no such agreement nor commitment to China regarding the removal of the BRP Sierra Madre.

The Philippines reinforced its stance, insisting that the BRP Sierra Madre will remain stationed in Ayungin Shoal and will not abandon its territorial claim in the Spratly Islands. 

Even though the BRP Sierra Madre is approaching her 80th year in service and is beginning to show evident signs of wear and decay, she is still standing strong, and her symbolic significance remains powerful in the fiercely disputed South China Sea, which constantly sparks tension between the People's Republic of China and the Republic of the Philippines. 


**Banner image: BRP Sierra Madre. Courtesy: BBC News

-Asia Media Centre