AFP is reinforcing rusting Navy ship on Spratly Ayungin reef outpost with Welding and Cement

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Filipino soldiers wave from the dilapidated Sierra Madre ship of the Philippines Navy as it is anchored near Ayungin shoal (Second Thomas Shoal) in the Spratly group of islands in the South China Sea, west of Palawan, Philippines, in this photo taken in May. Photo: Reuters

Philippines reinforcing rusting Navy ship on Spratly reef outpost

Manila:  The Philippines navy is quietly reinforcing the hull and deck of a rusting ship it ran aground on a disputed South China Sea reef in 1999 to stop it breaking apart, determined to hold the shoal as Beijing creates a string of man-made islands nearby.

Using wooden fishing boats and other small craft, the navy has run the gauntlet of the Chinese coastguard to move cement, steel, cabling and welding equipment to the BRP Sierra Madre since late last year, according to two navy officers who have been inside the vessel.

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The BRP Sierra Madre, a marooned transport ship which Philippine Marines live on as a military outpost, photographed last year. Photo: Reuters

The 100 meter-long tank landing ship was built for the US Navy during World War Two. It was eventually transferred to the Philippines navy, which deliberately grounded it on Second Thomas Shoal to mark Manila's claim to the reef in the Spratly archipelago of the South China Sea. A small contingent of Philippine soldiers are stationed onboard.

Manila regards Second Thomas Shoal, which lies 195 km south-west of the Philippines region of Palawan, as being within its exclusive economic zone. China, which claims virtually all the South China Sea, says the reef is part of its territory.

"We know China has been waiting for the ship to disintegrate but we are doing everything to hold it together," said one of the officers, adding that while the work was progressing slowly, it should be finished by the year-end.

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A newly deployed Philippine Marine, part of a military detachment stationed aboard the BRP Sierra Madre, fishes near the ship in the disputed Second Thomas Shoal, part of the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea in this photo taken last year. Photo: Reuters

The other naval officer said welding was being done at night because of the heat. Concrete foundations were being laid inside the ship's hull to try to stabilize it, he added.

Without giving exact dates, both sources said they witnessed the repairs taking place earlier this year. They declined to be identified because they were not authorized to speak to the media. The soldiers currently stationed on the ship, who are demolition experts, were doing the work, said the second source.

Just to the west of Second Thomas Shoal is Mischief Reef, one of seven coral formations in the Spratlys that China is rapidly turning into islands that Beijing says will have undefined military purposes.

Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei also have overlapping claims to the Spratly waterway, which is some 1,100 km from the Chinese mainland.

Asked about the repairs, Philippine Foreign Ministry spokesman Charles Jose declined to comment. But such work would not violate an informal code of conduct signed in 2002 by China and south-east Asian states that prohibited any change to the status quo in disputed areas, he said.

"In our view, repairs and maintenance of existing facilities are allowed ... especially if such repairs and maintenance work are for the safety of our personnel and safety of navigation," Mr Jose added.

A Philippines general familiar with the repairs  said the ship's hull and deck were being strengthened, and air-conditioning units added.

"We are improving the living quarters inside, to make life for our soldiers more comfortable," he said, declining to give further details about the repairs or to be identified.

Photos show a pockmarked vessel covered in rust, sitting on the permanently submerged reef but listing slightly to one side. Much of the boat's hull is visible.

Besides being a military outpost, the BRP Sierra Madre is also a commissioned Philippine navy ship.

That means Manila could request U.S. military assistance under a decades-old security treaty with Washington if the ship was attacked, said senior Philippine military officials.

"Even if it's covered with rust, it will remain an active duty commissioned navy ship. It's a symbol of our sovereignty," said the Philippine general.

Second Thomas Shoal illustrates the mismatch in power between the Philippines and China.

Since the start of 2014, the Philippine navy's regular attempts to resupply soldiers on the BRP Sierra Madre with food and water have become a cat-and-mouse routine, with large Chinese coastguard vessels on patrol in the area trying to block the path of the smaller Philippine boats, naval officials said.

The Philippine vessels have always got through by making a run for the shoal's shallow waters, which aren't deep enough for the Chinese coastguard, naval officials said. The tear-shaped shoal itself is large, some 10-11 nautical miles from top to bottom.

Zhang Baohui, a mainland security expert at Hong Kong's Lingnan University, said Beijing would be angry about the repairs, adding that Chinese ships would probably continue their "menacing" tactics. But they would not do anything that could be considered an act of war, Dr Zhang said.

"The larger geo-strategic context is more important than Second Thomas Shoal," he said. - Reuters/The Sydney Morning Herald

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