Take a careful look at the footage of the “collision” that took place in the South China Sea on Sunday between a Philippine coastguard ship and a Chinese maritime militia vessel.
A Filipino television crew is frantically trying to capture what is known in the business as a “action piece to camera” as the stern of one ship knocks the deck of the other right in the center of the picture.
Beijing and Manila have been at odds over underwater shoals in the South China Sea for many years.
However, something has changed in recent months. The disputes at sea are currently playing out in front of a huge broadcast audience. For the second time in a few weeks, journalists from the Philippines have captured a close encounter in close proximity to a delicate reef known as Ren Ai Reef, Ayungin Shoal, or Second Thomas Shoal.
This is not by chance. The Philippine administration has made it a point to draw attention to China’s use of “brute force” to gain control over what Manila claims are their seas.
“I believe this year has brought about a tremendous transformation. The effort is what I would describe as forceful, says retired colonel Raymond Powell of the Gordian Knot Center at Stanford University.
The Philippine government started providing local media with additional video of the encounters in January. By the end of the summer, it was transporting an increasing number of journalists, including the BBC, on its boats and aircraft as they flew over the disputed seas.
“It’s been like turning on a light to show China’s grey zone operations,” Colonel Powell stated.
These novel strategies seem to have surprised China.
For a time, the tactic appeared to be working, according to Oriana Skylar Mastro of the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies: “We saw a bit of a lull in China’s activities.”
As a result of Beijing’s relaxation, Manila was able to conduct numerous resupply missions to the Sierra Madre, an old World War II-era landing ship that serves as its garrison on Second Thomas Shoal.In 1999, it was purposefully stranded on the reef. A small group of Philippine marines have since kept lone watch within the rusting wreck as it has slowly started to disintegrate. A BBC team visited the ship in 2014. It was in bad shape even then, with enormous holes in the sides and waves crashing through the building.
The majority of observers think China has been happy to take the long view. Resupplies to the Sierra Madre have been permitted by China’s coast guard when ties between Beijing and Manila have been cordial. When things got heated, they took action to obstruct the resupply ships.
Overall, Beijing believes that the Sierra Madre cannot remain forever and that the Philippines will eventually have to evacuate the troops when the ship sinks to the bottom of the ocean.
During the six years that Rodrigo Duterte was president, that presumption seemed to be accurate. However, the Philippines’ foreign policy has changed drastically since President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. was elected last year.
President Marcos has totally re-embraced the alliance with the United States, overturned Mr. Duterte’s approach of courting Beijing, and started yelling about China’s intrusions into Manila’s 200-nautical-mile Exclusive Economic Zone.
And there’s more. According to sources in Manila, the Philippines has been bringing more than just food and water on resupply missions to the Sierra Madre. They claim that it has been covertly transporting building supplies including cement and scaffolding. The goal is to support the ailing ship.
“It’s very hard to see how they could extend the life of the ship,” Colonel Powell stated. “I believe we are nearing a catastrophe. The Sierra Madre’s demise is imminent. It may split up quickly.
Perhaps this renewed feeling of urgency is what is driving Beijing and Manila to be more proactive. The Philippines is fighting tooth and nail to maintain its position on Ayungen Shoal. Beijing, who is adamant that the Sierra Madre won’t survive, is once more asserting its authority.
But what will happen if the Sierra Madre ultimately falls into the South China Sea, often known as the West Philippine Sea in Manila?
Will Beijing intervene and try to take over the reef, as it has done in other parts of the South China Sea? Will Manila try to anchor a different ship on Ayungin Shoal? How will Washington respond, too?
Nobody can say for sure, but that day is coming—possibly very soon.