"The destinies of two [countries]...seem to be tied by some god-damned things called LST's"
Once again, the Chinese are agitating about their claims to almost everything in the South China Sea. An earlier post of mine details how China has expanded its purported reach farther into the Pacific Ocean, much to the dismay of its regional neighbors. While the PRC claims that such moves are merely for coastal protection, they have recently been pushing oceanic claims to include almost anything with oil or natural gas underneath--ranging from South Korea's Socotra Rock to Japan's Senkaku Island Chain. The Philippine's Second Thomas Shoal is no exception. What sets the Thomas Shoal apart is that the Philippine claim is currently being buttressed by the presence of a rusty, beached, 70-year-old WWII LST (Landing Ship, Tank).
Specifically, this one: Former USS Harnett County (LST-821), currently the BRP Sierra Madre (LT-57)
The USS Harnett County was an LST for the United States in WWII, and served again during Vietnam. The ship was given to the Phillipines in 1976, wherein its designation was changed to the BRP Sierra Madre. The Sierra Madre was beached on the Second Thomas Shoal sometime in 1999. Though it hasn't moved under its own power for decades, it hosts a detachment of Filipino Marines, as it is still officially a commissioned vessel of the Philippine Navy. The PRC has only recently been pushing its claim to the region, but has gone so far as to interfere with the ship's resupply operations, using aggressive blocking tactics similar to those employed against the USS Cowpens last December. The reason the ship is still officially commissioned and manned is because an attack against it would be tantamount to war between the PRC and the Philippines--and the Philippines' non-NATO ally the United States.
So why does the Sierra Madre matter any more than the Senkakus or the Socotra Rock? Unlike the other two disputes, the Sierra Madre is an immediate military concern. The debate over the Socotra Rock stems more from EEZ concerns, as the scientific station located there cannot legally be considered national territory (as per the UNCLOS). While the Senkakus have recently seen their own escalations of force, no direct military action has yet been undertaken. The Sierra Madre is a military vessel, manned by military personnel, surrounded by arguably hostile ships of the People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN). The PLAN knows it could easily overrun the decrepit vessel at any time, but so doing would invite instant military retaliation.
This issue has not gone unnoticed by Washington. The Council of Foreign Relations reminds us that "risk of conflict in the South China Sea is significant. China, Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, and the Philippines have competing territorial and jurisdictional claims, particularly over rights ... to reserves of oil and gas." After Russia's bold moves against Ukraine, the potential diplomatic implications for the PRC in the South China Sea are immense. The Obama administration is pushing ASEAN for a comprehensive "code of conduct" in the South China Sea in order to avert any disaster that might lead to war.
China is viewed by most of the international community as the aggressor in recent South China Sea disputes. However minor disputes over small rocks in the Pacific may seem, their successful resolution will hopefully set a peaceful precedent of action that will help resolve future oceanic disputes with the Asian powerhouse. Meanwhile, an old LST that served the United States through two wars may yet be involved in a third. Only time will tell if Winston Churchill will be proven right, yet again.
(For more information, the NYT has a wonderful article regarding the current condition of the Sierra Madre).