Philippines says refurbishing grounded ship an option to strengthen hold on disputed shoal

By Karen Lema

PUERTO PRINCESA, Philippines (Reuters) – The Philippines is looking at several options to strengthen its hold on the disputed Second Thomas Shoal in the South China Sea including refurbishing a grounded and rusting warship it uses as a military outpost, a move that would likely anger Beijing.

“All courses of actions to prolong our stay there are being considered… one of them is refurbishment,” Vice Admiral Alberto Carlos, chief of the Philippine Western Command, said in joint news conference with the military chief, Romeo Brawner.

The Philippines intentionally grounded the World War Two-era warship Sierra Madre in 1999 as part of its sovereignty claim to the Second Thomas Shoal, which lies within its exclusive economic zone, and rotates a handful of troops through the ship.

China has urged the Philippines to fulfill a “promise” to tow away the grounded vessel, but Manila denied striking any agreement to abandon the shoal, which it calls Ayungin.

The Philippine’s priority at the moment is to resume the rotation and resupply mission for its troops on the atoll, which would likely take place in two weeks, Carlos said.

“It is our prayer that there will be no water cannon incident, there will be less aggressive reception from the other side especially because of the international attention that this incident has generated,” he said.

Japan, France, South Korea and the United States have expressed concern over the “dangerous” moves carried out by Chinese Coast Guard vessels against Manila’s resupply boats on Aug. 5 including its use of water cannon.

China’s actions forced one of the two boats hit by the water cannon to turn back, while the second boat reached the shoal, after it did a “drastic manoeuvre” to “escape near ramming attempts,” the vessels’ Philippine navy crew said.

“We were hit by the water cannon. The food supplies we were carrying like rice, vegetable and meat were drenched,” said navy officer Ramsey Gutierrez, contradicting video footage China released showing otherwise.

Gutierrez was supposed to begin his first tour of duty at the shoal had his boat not been blocked by Chinese vessels.

The Philippines won an international arbitration award in 2016 against China’s South China Sea sovereignty claim, after a tribunal ruled Beijing’s sweeping claim had no legal basis, including at the Second Thomas Shoal.

China, which does not recognise the ruling, has built militarised, manmade islands in the South China Sea and its claim of historic sovereignty overlaps with the EEZs of the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia.

(Reporting by Karen Lema; Editing by Michael Perry)