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Beijing plans to build a naval outpost on Second Thomas Shoal

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Tensions surrounding Second Thomas Shoal in the South China Sea have escalated in 2023, with accusations from Manila that the Chinese coastguard used a military-grade laser and incidents of water cannon firing and dangerous collisions between Chinese and Philippine vessels. These events have raised concerns about a wider conflict in the region, and there has been no indication of de-escalation in the new year.

China has been increasingly critical of the Philippines’ resupply and propaganda activities at Second Thomas Shoal since last year. Dissatisfaction with China’s South China Sea policies and actions is also growing across various social strata within the Philippines. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has struggled to find a peaceful resolution and has called for restraint and trust-building.

The United States, Japan, Australia, and the European Union have expressed support for the Philippines, but the extent of US intervention and under what circumstances remain uncertain. The dispute between China and the Philippines raises questions about the potential developments and the possibility of a tacit understanding to ease tensions.

There are several possible scenarios. One option is for Manila to install a permanent structure at Second Thomas Shoal to replace the deteriorating BRP Sierra Madre warship that is grounded there. However, this action is likely to provoke a strong backlash from Beijing. China currently treats the presence of the warship as temporary and accidental, rather than a formal occupation of the shoal. Any permanent structure may also breach the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, potentially leading to increased tensions and chaos in the region.

Another possibility is that China seizes an opportunity to dismantle the BRP Sierra Madre. However, there is low likelihood of this occurring as it may escalate tensions and provoke US defense alliance obligations. Beijing may also be in no rush to act, considering the deteriorating state of the warship. The Philippines’ completion of reinforcements and refurbishments inside the ship would ensure their garrison at Second Thomas Shoal remains unaffected even if the ship collapses.

The third scenario is a continuation of the status quo with some new developments. The cat-and-mouse game surrounding the resupply missions may become protracted, and Beijing’s interception actions may vary depending on changes in bilateral relations. This situation would generally be unfavorable for Beijing and could put pressure on policymakers to maintain the integrity of Chinese territories.

The fourth possibility is the development of small military outposts on Second Thomas Shoal. If the Philippines fortifies the BRP Sierra Madre, China may establish corresponding fixed structures as retaliation. Large-scale land reclamation projects are unlikely, but constructing fixed installations near the warship remains possible.

In conclusion, it is unlikely that a short-term tacit agreement will be reached between China and the Philippines due to limited space for policy concessions. The most probable outcome is the fortification of the BRP Sierra Madre into a permanent military outpost, prompting China to rapidly install a small fixed facility in retaliation. Second Thomas Shoal serves as a litmus test for decision-makers on both sides and may provide insights into the direction of the South China Sea issue.

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