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Here’s a picture of a ship. It’s pretty old and rusty, and it doesn’t look like it would be doing much of anything today. Would you believe me, then, if I told you that this ship has not only been staffed continuously for 17 years (despite being run aground), but is also at the center of a major diplomatic crisis?

The ship’s name is the BRP Sierra Madre, and what makes her important is where she is grounded. The Sierra Madre was scuttled in 1999 by the Philippine Navy on Ayungin Shoal, located in the heart of the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea. Since then, a staff of sailors has kept eternal vigil on the wreck to assert the Philippine claim, chasing off the Chinese navy that disputes their presence.

Does that sound more familiar now? I hope so. Ownership of the Spratly Islands is disputed by six countries: China (PRC), Taiwan (ROC), Malaysia, Vietnam, the Philippines, and Brunei. While these islands themselves are rather unimportant – none of them can support a significant human population, and very few have any arable land or potable water – the exclusive economic zones (EEZs) of the Spratlys are potentially home to vast amounts of natural resources, such as fish and oil; and intersect major shipping routes.

It’s thus no surprise that the Spratlys have been so hotly contested. China’s historical “nine-dash line” encompasses almost the entirety of the South China Sea and overlaps the other countries’ claims. These claims and the others are all supposedly founded in history, so their execution are based simply on military might – in which regard China sits atop the pile of Asian countries. This has given China heavy clout in ASEAN, which the Philippines has attempted to circumvent by going straight to the UN. While the situation has been largely diplomatically deadlocked, tensions at sea are different matter entirely, as fishing boats are harassed by opposing navies for “trespassing.”

So, how could this get more complicated in the coming months? Frankly, I don’t know. Duterte’s recent anti-American aggressions, including last week’s ousting of American troops who were practicing anti-terrorism drills in Mindanao, leaves US-Philippine relations in doubt. It’ll be difficult for Duterte to expect any sympathy from US diplomats after giving our troops the boot and calling Obama a “son of a bitch.”

Finally, why is this something you should care about? The Philippines have been a major ally of the United States ever since WWII, and China is world’s second-largest economic power after the US. Changes in how these states interact could change our trade and foreign aid policies for years to come.

By Thomas McKeen

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