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How a Decaying Warship Beached on a Tiny Shoal Provoked China’s Ire

For more than two decades, it has been an unlikely flashpoint in the South China Sea: a rusty, World War II-era ship beached on a tiny reef that has become a symbol of Philippine resistance against Beijing.

The Philippine government ran the vessel aground in 1999 on the Second Thomas Shoal, a contested reef 120 miles off the coast of the western province of Palawan.

The dilapidated warship, known as the Sierra Madre, will never sail again. But it has remained there ever since, a marker of the Philippines’ claim to the shoal and an effort to prevent China from seizing more of the disputed waters.

On Friday, a reporter for The New York Times was among a group given rare access to a Philippine resupply mission, first boarding a Coast Guard ship — the BRP Cabra — and then an inflatable dinghy to get within 1,000 yards of the Sierra Madre.

The Philippines has portrayed its struggle against China as one of David and Goliath. After multiple clashes in recent years, the Philippine Coast Guard has started inviting journalists on its missions to resupply the handful of people remaining on the Sierra Madre. It is part of a public relations strategy to show the world how Beijing is asserting its might in the South China Sea.

This mission was the closest that any civilian has gotten to the ship in over a year, since China intensified its blockade of the shoal.

Around midnight, the Cabra was 16 nautical miles from the Sierra Madre when four Chinese ships began shadowing it.

When the sun rose around 6 a.m., the cat-and-mouse game immediately began. The Chinese ships boxed in the Cabra, forcing the vessel to maneuver its way out. This occurred at least two more times.

The ships repeatedly challenged each other over the radio. At one point, at least 15 Chinese vessels had gathered — triple the number of Philippine ships.

“You are a state party to UNCLOS,” a Filipino officer on the Cabra told a Chinese ship over the radio, referring to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, the international agreement governing marine and maritime activities. “Your actions are illegal. Stop your activity, or face the consequence of your action.”

“Stop the operation and leave the sea area