By JEFF HIMMELMAN
By JEFF HIMMELMAN
Ayungin Shoal lies 105 nautical miles from the Philippines. There’s little to commend the spot, apart from its plentiful fish and safe harbor — except that Ayungin sits at the southwestern edge of an area called Reed Bank, which is rumored to contain vast reserves of oil and natural gas.
And also that it is home to a World War II-era ship called the Sierra Madre, which the Philippine government ran aground on the reef in 1999 and has since maintained as a kind of post-apocalyptic military garrison, the small detachment of Filipino troops stationed there struggling to survive extreme mental and physical desolation.
Of all places, the scorched shell of the Sierra Madre has become an unlikely battleground in a geopolitical struggle that will shape the future of the South China Sea and, to some extent, the rest of the world.
In early August, after an overnight journey in a fishing boat that had seen better days, we approached Ayungin from the south and came upon two Chinese Coast Guard cutters stationed at either side of the reef. We were a small group: two Westerners and a few Filipinos, led by Mayor Eugenio Bito-onon Jr., whose territory includes most of the Philippine land claims in the South China Sea. The Chinese presence at Ayungin had spooked the Philippine Navy out of undertaking its regular run to resupply the troops there, but the Chinese were still letting some fishing boats through. We were to behave as any regular fishing vessel with engine trouble or a need for shelter in the shoal would, which meant no radio contact. As we throttled down a few miles out and waited to see what the Chinese Coast Guard might do, there was only an eerie quiet.
Bito-onon stood at the prow, nervously eyeing the cutters. Visits to his constituents on the island of Pag-asa, farther northwest, take him past Ayungin fairly frequently, and the mayor has had his share of run-ins. Last October, he said, a Chinese warship crossed through his convoy twice, at very high speed, nearly severing a towline connecting two boats. This past May, as the mayor’s boat neared Ayungin in the middle of the night, a Chinese patrol trained its spotlight on the boat and tailed it for an hour, until it became clear that it wasn’t headed to Ayungin. “They are becoming more aggressive,” the mayor said. “We didn’t know if they would ram us.”
We didn’t know if they would ram us, either. As we approached, we watched through binoculars and a camera viewfinder to see if the Chinese boats would try to head us off. After a few tense moments, it became clear that they were going to stay put and let us pass. Soon we were inside the reef, the Sierra Madre directly in front of us. As we chugged around to the starboard side, two marines peered down uncertainly from the top of the long boarding ladder. The ship’s ancient communications and radar equipment loomed above them, looking as if it could topple over at any time. After a series of rapid exchanges with the mayor, the marines motioned for us to throw up our boat’s ropes. Within a minute or two the fishing boat was moored and we were handing up our bags, along with cases of Coca-Cola and Dunkin’ Donuts that naval command had sent along as pasalubong, gifts for the hungry men on board.
From afar, the boat hadn’t looked much different from the Chinese boats that surrounded it. But at close range, water flowed freely through holes in the hull.
With the tropical sun blasting down on it, the ship was ravaged by rust. Whole sections of the deck were riddled with holes.
Old doors and metal sheets dotted paths where the men walked, to prevent them from plunging into the cavernous tank space below.
It was hard to imagine how such a forsaken place could become a flash point in a geopolitical power struggle.
But before we had much time to think about that, someone pointed out that the Chinese boats had started to move. They left their positions to the east and west of the reef and began to converge just off the starboard side, where the reef came closest to the ship.
Chinese Coast Guard cutters patrol within sight
of the Sierra Madre.
The mayor and several others stood quietly on deck, watching them as they came. The message from the Chinese was unmistakable: We see you, we’ve got our eye on you, we are here.
As the Chinese boats made their half-circle in front of the Sierra Madre, the mayor mimed the act of them filming us. “Wave,” he said. “We’re going to be big on YouTube.”
To understand how Ayungin (known to the Western world as Second Thomas Shoal) could become contested ground is to confront, in miniature, both the rise of China and the potential future of U.S. foreign policy. It is also to enter into a morass of competing historical, territorial and even moral claims in an area where defining what is true or fair may be no easier than it has proved to be in the Middle East.
The Spratly Islands sprawl over roughly 160,000 square miles in the waters of the coasts of the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, Taiwan and China — all of whom claim part of the islands.
Since the 18th century, navigators have referred to the Spratlys as “Dangerous Ground” — a term that captures not only the treacherous nature of the area but also the mess that is the current political situation in the South China Sea.
In addition to the Philippines, the governments of China, Taiwan and Vietnam also claim the Spratlys for themselves, and have occupied some of them as a way to stake that claim. Malaysia and Brunei make more modest partial claims.
The Chinese and Taiwanese base their claims on Xia and Han dynasty records and a 1947 map made by the Kuomintang. The nine-dash line derived from that map pushes up against the coastlines of all the other countries in the area.
The current Philippine claim is based mostly on the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea from 1982, which established an Exclusive Economic Zone of 200 nautical miles off the shore of sovereign states.
Why the fuss over “Dangerous Ground”? Natural resources are a big piece of it. According to current U.S. estimates, the seabed beneath the Spratlys may hold up to 5.4 billion barrels of oil and 55.1 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. On top of which, about half of the world’s merchant fleet tonnage and nearly one third of its crude oil pass through these waters each year. They also contain some of the richest fisheries in the world.
In 2012, China and the Philippines engaged in a standoff at Scarborough Shoal, after a Philippine warship attempted to expel Chinese fishing boats from the area, which they claimed had been harvesting endangered species within the Philippine EEZ. Although the shoal lies well to the north of the Spratlys, it is in many ways Ayungin’s direct precedent.
The Cabbage Strategy
China is currently in disputes with several of its neighbors, and the Chinese have become decidedly more willing to wield a heavy stick. There is a growing sense that they have been waiting a long time to flex their muscles and that that time has finally arrived. “Nothing in China happens overnight,” Stephanie Kleine-Ahlbrandt, the director of Asia-Pacific programs at the United States Institute of Peace, said. “Any move you see was planned and prepared for years, if not more. So obviously this maritime issue is very important to China.”
It is also very important to the United States, as Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton made clear at a gathering of the Association of Southeast Nations (Asean) in Hanoi in July 2010. Clinton declared that freedom of navigation in the South China Sea was a “national interest” of the United States, and that “legitimate claims to maritime space in the South China Sea should be derived solely from legitimate claims to land features,” which could be taken to mean that China’s nine-dash line was illegitimate. The Chinese foreign minister, Yang Jiechi, chafed visibly, left the meeting for an hour and returned only to launch into a long, vituperative speech about the danger of cooperation with outside powers.
President Obama and his representatives have reiterated America’s interest in the region ever since. The Americans pointedly refuse to take sides in the sovereignty disputes. But China’s behavior as it becomes more powerful, along with freedom of navigation and control over South China Sea shipping lanes, will be among the major global political issues of the 21st century. According to the Council on Foreign Relations, of the $5.3 trillion in global trade that transits the South China Sea each year, $1.2 trillion of it touches U.S. ports — and so American foreign policy has begun to shift accordingly.
In a major speech in Singapore last year, Leon Panetta, then the secretary of defense, described the coming pivot in U.S. strategy in precise terms: “While the U.S. will remain a global force for security and stability, we will of necessity rebalance toward the Asia-Pacific region.” He referred to the United States as a “Pacific nation,” with a capital “P” and no irony, and then announced a series of changes — most notably that the roughly 50-50 balance of U.S. naval forces between the Pacific and the Atlantic would become 60-40 Pacific by 2020. Given the size of the U.S. Navy, this is enormously significant.
In June of last year, the United States helped broker an agreement for both China’s and the Philippines’s ships to leave Scarborough Shoal peacefully, but China never left. They eventually blocked access to the shoal and filled in a nest of boats around it to ward off foreign fishermen.
“Since [the standoff], we have begun to take measures to seal and control the areas around the Huangyan Island,” Maj. Gen. Zhang Zhaozhong, of China’s People’s Liberation Army, said in a television interview in May, using the Chinese term for Scarborough. (That there are three different names for the same set of uninhabitable rocks tells you much of what you need to know about the region.) He described a “cabbage strategy,” which entails surrounding a contested area with so many boats — fishermen, fishing administration ships, marine surveillance ships, navy warships — that “the island is thus wrapped layer by layer like a cabbage.”
There can be no question that the cabbage strategy is in effect now at Ayungin and has been at least since May. General Zhang, in his interview several months ago, listed Ren’ai Shoal (the Chinese name for Ayungin) in the P.L.A.’s “series of achievements” in the South China Sea. He had already put it in the win column, even though eight Filipino marines still live there. He also seemed to take some pleasure in the strategy. Of taking territory from the Philippines, he said: “We should do more such things in the future. For those small islands, only a few troopers are able to station on each of them, but there is no food or even drinking water there. If we carry out the cabbage strategy, you will not be able to send food and drinking water onto the islands. Without the supply for one or two weeks, the troopers stationed there will leave the islands on their own. Once they have left, they will never be able to come back.”
‘If You Want to Live, Eat’
On the deck of the Sierra Madre, with morning sun slanting off the bright blue water and the crowing of a rooster for a soundtrack, Staff Sgt. Joey Loresto and Sgt. Roy Yanto were improvising. Yanto, a soft-spoken 31-year-old, had lost an arrow spearfishing on the shoal the day before. Now he had pulled the handle off an old bucket and was banging it straight with a rusty mallet in an attempt to make it into a spear. Everything on the Sierra Madre was this way — improvised, repurposed. “Others came prepared,” Loresto said of previous detachments that had been briefed about life on the boat before they arrived and knew they would need to fish to supplement their diet. “But we were not prepared.”
For the final touches to the arrowhead, Yanto used a hammer and a rusted, machete-like blade.
They made spearfishing guns from a piece of wood, a bolt repurposed as a trigger and two pieces of rubber for propulsion.
In the afternoons, if the weather was good and the tide was low, they would don snorkels and old goggles and swim around the boat.
A successful spearfishing session meant avoiding barracudas and sharks and gathering a basket full of Philippine grouper known as lapu-lapu.
Yanto lived alone at the stern of the boat, in a room with a bed, a mosquito net, an M-16 propped against the wall and nothing but a tarp wrapped around a steel bar to separate him from the sea. He also took care of the three fighting cocks on the boat. They were lashed to various perches at the stern and took great pleasure in crowing at anybody who tried to use the “toilet,” a seatless ceramic bowl suspended over the water by iron pipes and plywood.
Yanto has a wife and a 6-year-old son back in Zamboanga City. Like the others, he is able to talk to his family once a week or so, when they call in to one of the two satellite phones that the men take care to keep dry and charged. “It’s enough for me,” he said, of the 5 or 10 minutes he gets on the phone with his family. “What’s important is that I heard their voice.”
Like Yanto, Loresto was wearing a sleeveless jersey with “MARINES” printed across the front and a section of mesh between the chest and waistline, uniforms for the world’s most exotic basketball team. “It’s a lonely place,” Loresto said. “But we make ourselves busy, always busy.”
When his arrow was complete, Yanto turned to two tubs covered in plastic, which were filled with fish that he had picked off his line the previous night. Fishing lines descended at regular intervals from the port side of the boat, with each soldier responsible for his own; they spend hours tending to them. Yanto split the fish open, covered them with salt, then laid them out to dry on a plank hanging above the deck. “Good for breakfast,” he said, gesturing to the fish he was putting up.
The men depend on fish as their main means of physical survival.
The men depend on fish — fresh, fried, dried — as their main means of physical survival. They were all undernourished and losing weight, even though eating and meal prep were the main activities on board, after fishing. Asked what meal he missed most from the mainland, Yanto said, “Vegetables,” without hesitation. “That’s more important than meat or any other kind of dish.” The motto of the boat, spray-painted on the wall near the kitchen, was “Kumain ang gustong mabuhay” — basically: “If you want to live, eat.”
In the long hours between lunch and dinner, most of the men would disappear into their quarters to pass the time. Aside from Yanto and the one Navy seaman on board, who occupied an aerie above everybody else, the marines lived in the old officer’s quarters and on the boat’s bridge. When the Sierra Madre was first driven up on the shoal in 1999, it was apparently a desired posting: there was less rust, you could sleep wherever you wanted and people played basketball in the vast tank space below deck. (Now that space was filled with standing water and whatever trash the men threw into it.) Aside from the quarters, which were themselves full of leaks and rust, there was hardly any place inside the boat to congregate that wasn’t either a health hazard, full of water or open to the elements. In bad weather, they gathered in the communications room on the second floor, where Loresto’s DVD player and computer were kept, to watch movies or sing karaoke. (They were all pretty good, but Yanto stood out. He nailed George Michael’s “Careless Whisper,” down to the vividly emotional hand gestures.) If they weren’t at the computer, they were just off to the side, in a small, dark workout area that held an exercise bike (extra resistance supplied by pulling a strap with your hands), an ancient bench press and a bunch of Vietnam-era American communications equipment.
Servicemen Roel Sarucam, Joey Loresto, Charlie Claro, Lionel Pepito, Israel Briguera and Antonio Olayra on the deck of the Sierra Madre.
The Sierra Madre at one time was the U.S.S. Harnett County, built as a tank-landing ship for World War II and then repurposed as a floating helicopter and speedboat hub in the rivers of Vietnam. In 1970 the U.S. gave the ship to the South Vietnamese, and in 1976 it was passed on to the Philippines. But nobody had ever taken the time to strip all of the communications gear or even old U.S. logbooks and a fleet guide from 1970.
In good weather, the men socialized outside, under the corrugated-tin roof that sheltered the boat’s small kitchen and living area. The “walls” were tarps, repurposed doors, old metal sheets and the backs of storage lockers. The “floor” consisted of two large canted metal plates that met in the middle of the boat, suspended above a large void in the deck. The plates popped and echoed with deep thuds whenever anybody walked over them. Everything was on an incline, so the legs of the peeling-leather couches and tables were sawed to various lengths to square their surfaces. A locker at the center, the driest spot on deck, held mostly inoperable electronic equipment and a small television that had a satellite connection but stayed on for only five minutes at a time. The men got together in the evenings to watch the Philippine squad make a surprising run in the FIBA Asia basketball tournament, only to be interrupted as the television repeatedly went dark. To fix it they had to insert a thin metal wire into a hole in the set and then power the machine off and back on again. “Defective,” one of marines said, by way of explanation. Loresto smiled and shook his head. “Overuse,” he said.
Loresto was the life of the boat. When the men played pusoy dos, a variation of poker, he displayed an impressive and sustained level of exuberance, often plastering the winning card to his forehead, face out, and shouting with laughter. He comes from Ipilan, on the island of Palawan. He’s 35, with a wife and three children, ages 2, 10 and 12. Before this posting, he spent 10 years fighting Islamic extremists in Mindanao, the southernmost island group in the Philippine archipelago. Asked whether he preferred combat or the Sierra Madre, Loresto thought for a second and then said, “Combat.”
He also had one of the only real military jobs on the boat, manning the radio and reporting the number and behavior of the boats outside the shoal. He was also the one to note and record that a U.S. intelligence plane, a P-3C Orion, tended to fly over the shoal whenever the Chinese made a significant tactical shift.
Loresto regularly updated his “sightings” — a Hainanese fishing vessel there, a Vietnamese one here.
When the Chinese swapped their maritime surveillance boats out for Coast Guard cutters, Loresto took note.
Every four hours, he radioed his reports. He didn’t love being there, but he knew why it was necessary. “It’s our job to defend our sovereignty,” he said.
One morning, as a Chinese boat circled slowly off the Sierra Madre’s starboard side, Mayor Bito-onon pulled out his computer to deliver a PowerPoint presentation about the various Philippine-held islands in the Spratlys. Most of the men had never seen anything like it before, and they gathered eagerly behind the mayor as he sat on a bench and walked them through it. Bito-onon was surprised at how little they knew about the struggle that was playing out around them. “They are blank, blank,” he told me after the presentation. “They don’t even know what’s on the nightly news.”
Other than a couple of jokes about “visiting China without a passport” (i.e., being captured), life at the tip of the gun didn’t feel much like life at the tip of a gun. It felt more like the world’s most surreal fishing camp. The Chinese boats were always there, but they were a source more of mystery than fear. “We don’t know why they’re out there,” Yanto said at one point. “Are they looking for us? What is their intention?”
To Bito-onon, the Chinese intentions were clear. At breakfast he had said, “They could come take this at any time, and everybody knows it.” What would these guys do if that happened? He raised both hands, smiled and said, “Surrender.”
Later, as he sat on the bamboo bench that was his workplace, television-viewing station and bed for five days and nights on the deck of the Sierra Madre, he talked about Ayungin as the staging ground for China’s domination of the Pacific. “The Chinese want both the fisheries and the gas. They’re using their fisheries to dominate the area, but the oil is the target.” Almost as if on cue, one of the Chinese Coast Guard cutters chased off a fishing boat north of the shoal. As the mayor watched, he said that he hoped they wouldn’t do the same to our boat when we tried to leave. “What does that mean for me if they do?” he asked. “I can’t even come here or to Pag-asa?” Earlier he joked about the headline if the Chinese stopped him: “A Mayor Was Caught in His Own Territory!”
The official name of the mayor’s domain is the Kalayaan Island Group, which technically encompasses most of the Spratlys but in reality amounts to five islands, two sandbars and two reefs that the Philippines currently controls. He has 288 voting constituents, of which about 120 live at any one time on Pag-asa, the only island with a civilian population.
About 120 people live at any one time on Pag-asa, including civilians.
He is a slender, spry man of 57, with a quirky sense of humor that enables him to leaven his criticisms of graft and corruption at the higher levels of the Philippine government with friendly jokes and oblique asides. But his frustration with the lack of resources and the lack of political will is obvious. The Philippines, he says, has done very little to develop the islands they hold, while Vietnam and Malaysia have turned some of the reefs and islands they occupy into resorts that the Chinese would find much more difficult to justify taking as their own. Except for Pag-asa, the Philippines has mustered only the most threadbare of settlements, some even more desolate than Ayungin.
Three days later, we would ride in a small dinghy over the break and up onto the sloped beach of Lawak, 60 nautical miles to the north of the Sierra Madre. Like Ayungin, Lawak serves as a strategic gateway to the rich oil and gas reserves of the Reed Bank. Unlike Ayungin, Lawak also happens to look like a postcard picture of a deserted-island paradise — a circle of crushed-coral beach enclosing nearly 20 acres of scrub grass, palm trees, a bird sanctuary and a sea-turtle nesting ground.
Second Lt. Robinson Retoriano runs the detachment of 11 worn Filipino troops there. Most of the men under his command wear shorts, flip-flops and tank tops, but he led us on a tour of the island in full camouflage, pointing out with pride their recently constructed barracks and a basketball court with a spectator swing made of “drifted things.”
As we sat down in the courtyard, Pfc. Juan Colot, an M-16 slung low off his bony shoulders, whistled to the camp’s domesticated gull, which flew directly into his hands and chirped complacently. Retoriano is from Manila, and when we asked what a city boy like him was doing on an island in the middle of the South China Sea, he said, “I’m still wondering myself.”
In some ways, the guys on Lawak were even more isolated than Loresto and Yanto and the others on Ayungin. They were not allowed any use of the satellite phones whatsoever, not even for calls from loved ones. “It doubles the distance,” Retoriano said. To combat the loneliness, Retoriano sometimes gave the marines jobs to do, just to keep them busy. In the mornings they got up at 6 to sweep the camp. In the afternoons they fixed their hammocks outside, to sleep in the fresh air.
Over the course of a few hours, Retoriano referred to the island as “paradise” several times — which it was, if you focused on its physical beauty and didn’t think of how hard it would be to actually live there. And in truth these guys had it better than some of the other detachments — Kota, Parola, Likas, Rizal Reef, Patag — because at least they had ground to live and sleep on.
“A lot of Filipino people might not know why we’re fighting for these islands,” Retoriano said as we prepared to leave Lawak. “But once you see it, and you’ve stepped on it, you understand. It’s ours.” He accompanied us into the water and out to our launch boat, still in full fatigues and big black combat boots, getting drenched up to his chest. As he helped me swing up and over the lip of our boat, he said, “I’m glad we didn’t talk much about the sensitive political situation. But if you ask me, I think China is just a big bully.”
‘I’ve Never Seen More White Knuckles’
The Philippines’ best hope for resisting China currently resides inside a set of glassy offices in the heart of the K Street power corridor in Washington. There, Paul Reichler, a lawyer at Foley Hoag who specializes in international territorial disputes, serves as the lead attorney for the Philippines in its arbitration case over their claims in the South China Sea. Initiated in January, the case seeks to invalidate China’s nine-dash line and establish that the territorial rights be governed by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which both China and the Philippines have signed and ratified. The subtleties of the case revolve around E.E.Z.’s and continental shelves, without expressly resolving sovereignty issues. China has refused to participate, but the Philippines has proceeded anyway.
The key element, as far as the Sierra Madre is concerned, is that the case is growing to reflect the new reality on the water. “Ayungin will be part of the case now, now that the Chinese have virtually occupied it,” Reichler told me. He was hoping that the tribunal would define Ayungin as a “submerged feature.” A submerged feature, he explained, is considered part of the seabed and belongs to whoever owns the continental shelf underneath it, not to whoever happens to be occupying it. “The fact that somebody physically occupies it doesn’t give them any rights,” he said.
This took a second to sink in. Historically, the physical presence of troops on the Sierra Madre had been a vital part of the Filipino strategy; currently their presence was the only thing stopping a complete Chinese takeover there. Wasn’t that against the Philippines’ own interests? “No,” Reichler said. “Not if we’re not occupying it.” What he meant was that the Philippines wants to nullify any claim to a submerged feature based on who has control above the water — which applies beyond Ayungin to Mischief Reef and others, which the Chinese currently occupy. Surely this is a strong legal strategy, calibrated for an international tribunal. But if this is the strategy, you couldn’t help wondering what those guys were still doing out there, getting choked off a little bit more each day, while the legal process sought to make them irrelevant.
Mischief, a submerged reef similar to Ayungin and roughly 20 miles to its west, makes for an instructive example. It used to belong to the Philippines, but in 1994 the Chinese took advantage of a lull in Filipino maritime patrols caused by a passing typhoon and rapidly erected a stilted structure that they then made clear they were not going to leave. Slowly they turned it into a military outpost, over the repeated protests of the Filipinos, and now it serves as a safe harbor for the Chinese ships that patrol Ayungin and other areas.
What China has done with Mischief, Scarborough and now with Ayungin is what the journalist Robert Haddick described, writing in Foreign Policy, as “salami slicing” or “the slow accumulation of actions, none of which is acasus belli, but which add up over time to a major strategic change.” Huang Jing, the director of the Center on Asia and Globalization at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in Singapore, noted that in all of these conflicts — Scarborough, Ayungin — China insists on sending its civilian maritime force, which is theoretically unarmed. This has a powerful double significance: first, that the Chinese don’t want to start a war, even though in many ways they are playing the aggressor; and second, that they view any matter in the South China Sea as an internal affair. As Huang put it: “What China is doing is putting both hands behind its back and using its big belly to push you out, to dare you to hit first. And this has been quite effective.”
While an arbitration outcome unfavorable to the Chinese — which could be decided as early as March 2015 — would create some public-perception problems for them, China is unlikely to be deterred, in part because there is no enforcement mechanism. “Let’s be honest,” Stephanie Kleine-Ahlbrandt says, “China has essentially studied how the U.S. has conducted its hegemony, and they’re saying, ‘We have to respect some court case?’ They say that the United States blatantly violates international law when it’s in its interest. China sees this as what first-class powers do.” (Multiple requests for comment from the Chinese government went unanswered.)
The official U.S. position, articulated by Secretaries Clinton and Kerry, has been that the U.S. will not take sides in disputes over sovereignty. As the assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, Daniel R. Russel, told me, “Our primary interest is in maintaining peace, security and stability that allows for economic growth and avoids tension or conflict.” Basically, we’re staying out of it. But the U.S. has stepped up its joint operations with the Philippines, including a recent mock amphibious landing not far from Scarborough Shoal. There has also been talk of increasing U.S. troop rotations into some of its former bases.
“I think we want to find a way to restrain China and reassure the Philippines without getting ourselves into a shooting war,” James Steinberg, the former deputy secretary of state under Hillary Clinton, told me. “We have a broad interest in China behaving responsibly. But sovereignty over the Spratly Islands is not our dispute. We need to find a way to be engaged without being in the middle.” Kurt Campbell, a former assistant secretary of state with the Obama administration, put it more bluntly: “Maritime territorial disputes are the hardest problem, bar none, that diplomats are currently facing in Asia. On all of these issues, no country has any flexibility. I’ve never seen more white knuckles.”
According to Huang Jing: “Everyone in this region is playing a double game. Ten years ago, the United States was absolutely dominant in the region — economically, politically, militarily. People only had one yardstick to measure their national interest and their foreign policy, and the name of that yardstick was U.S.A. Now there are two yardsticks. On the political one, it’s still the U.S., but on the economic one, it is China.”
The United States does not have the unlimited leverage that it once did, and so for the time being it is allowing the Chinese to slice their salami all the way up onto the shallows of Ayungin.
Beneath a Ceiling of Clouds
The first rains of the typhoon came after dark, howling sideways across the deck of the Sierra Madre. We’d been hearing about the storm for a couple of days over the radio, tracking its course as it made landfall on Luzon and then turned west toward the South China Sea.
Under the supervision of Second Lt. Charlie Claro, the 29-year-old commander of the outpost, the men drilled holes in the boards with hand-cranks and pulled old, bent, rusted nails out of stray pieces of wood, hammered them straight, then reused them.
A couple of wooden doors were added to the walls of the living area, and additional tarps went into place.
A ceiling of clouds had lowered and blackened, and the wind began battering parts of the ship’s deck.
Rain poured into the laundry room through the ceiling, drenching everything. A rooster took shelter in a dry corner.
By nightfall, the wind had intensified into a gale. We gathered in the living area to listen to it, more awed than scared. Lieutenant Claro surfaced every so often to make sure that his improvements were holding. The rest of the marines stayed inside, singing karaoke. Later, they watched the FIBA Asia finals, the Philippines vs. Iran. Miraculously, the satellite held for most of the game. It felt as if the wind might rip the roof off from above our heads, but the marines were in good cheer. A victory for the underdog Philippine squad would have made for a nice David and Goliath moment in a David and Goliath kind of story, but the Iranians appeared to be about nine inches taller at every position and were just too much for the Filipinos. At halftime the marines went out to check on whether their fishing lines were surviving the storm, then straggled off to bed.
The next two days passed with wind and rain and long hours with nothing to do. Yanto and Loresto led a tour of the cavernous, foul tank space below decks, where old fluorescent light bays hung overhead on dangerously rusted cables.
We started to be able to identify individual marines by their footfalls. Jokes that weren’t funny doubled us over. At one point, Pfc. Michael Navata walked in from checking his fishing line and said: “Cards. To pass the time.” We played hours of pusoy dos, making fun of one another, volume levels rising every time Loresto stuck the two of diamonds on his forehead. The slow, steady backbeat of bad weather and desolation fell away for a while, and it felt as if we could have been in Loresto’s living room in Ipilan. Yanto sat to my left, coaching me out of charity, his nonverbal instruction registering levels of depth and intelligence that language hadn’t made available to us. For a moment we could see them as they really were, these marines: men who were serving their country in an extreme and unrelenting and even somewhat humiliating situation and trying bravely to make the best of it.
On the afternoon of the second bad day, the sun came out. Yanto promptly went spearfishing. One by one, the other marines stripped down and jumped in. This turned into most of us taking turns leaping off the high starboard side of the Sierra Madre, about halfway up the deck, down into the light blue water below. You had to pick your way barefoot up to the rusted lip and then, with everybody watching, try to forget that you were on a devastated ancient boat run aground on a reef in the shark-infested South China Sea and just jump. It was maybe a 30-foot drop, which took a half-second longer than you expected it to, but the water was warm and clear. We splashed around on our backs like otters. The storm had passed, and we were safe. Lieutenant Claro led a small group in a swim around our fishing boat, which he pronounced seaworthy, but then proceeded to chuckle about for several minutes. It was so woeful looking. After five days on the Sierra Madre, it was also a reminder of the real world, of how we had gotten there, and of the fact that we’d be leaving soon while these guys had to stay behind and eat to live.
Flying Past the Death Star
A month or so later, I spoke with a U.S. pilot with extensive combat experience and knowledge of Special Forces operations. I wanted to know what the American foreign-policy pivot looked like from the inside, and he was willing to tell me only if I didn’t name him. “The Chinese are more aggressive because we’re not around,” he said. His most recent training would seem to reflect the American rebalancing to the Pacific theater: more counter-Chinese-technology operations, more engagement over water, island-hopping campaigns. He said that the joint operations with the Philippines were “a show of presence: Hey, we’re [expletive] sailing through the South China Sea, look at us. And you can’t do a thing about it.” But then he paused. “It’s funny, because China’s not that far from doing that off the California coast.”
Whatever America’s pivot might be, there’s no denying that Southeast Asia, and the South Pacific, is historically where United States foreign policy — and too many young men sent out to enforce it — has gone to die. For now, the course is a diplomatic one: the Philippines pursues its arbitration, the Asean states apply pressure for a binding code of conduct in the South China Sea, and the United States counsels patience (within reason) and the peaceful resolution of disputes. As it turns out, this somewhat scattershot approach may actually be starting to work. The Chinese leadership has undertaken a new charm offensive of late, visiting the capitals of some Asean countries (notably not the Philippines) and signaling that it might be willing to soften its positions on adopting a code of conduct and multilateral negotiations.
At the East Asia Summit meetings in Brunei two weeks ago (which John Kerry attended in place of President Obama because of the government shutdown), Kerry pushed for a quick implementation of a binding code of conduct. “That’s sort of a new thing,” Ricky Carandang, the secretary of communications for the Philippines, told me when we spoke after the meetings. “He said, ‘We welcome a code of conduct, we welcome legal processes and we think these things should happen faster.’ That’s different from saying, ‘Hey, let’s do what we can to avoid tension, and we’re not picking sides here.’ ” But Carandang also noted that Obama’s absence in Brunei had allowed the Chinese to loom larger. If he fails to show up to the next meeting, or the administration fails to follow up on some of its promises, the Southeast Asian nations will have cause to wonder about our resolve. (Obama is said to be mulling a trip to Asia in the spring.)
Nobody is questioning China’s resolve. The day after we left Ayungin, we arrived at the island of Pag-asa, the mayor’s home base and the place for which he has the grandest plans — a resort, a commercial fishery, a sheltered port. As we pulled in, we saw several large Chinese fishing boats a couple of miles off the island. Aerial photos would later confirm that they were cutting coral from the reef, which is often done to harvest giant clams and other rare species. Nobody on Pag-asa, with its broken boats, low-slung civilian buildings and quiet Air Force base, could do anything about it. There was recently a food shortage because the last two Filipino naval resupply vessels haven’t been able to make the trip because of inclement weather. After a night there, rather than getting back on our fishing boat for a 30-hour journey, we were happy to board a Philippine naval plane and begin the trip home.
We sped down the bumpy, grass-covered runway and lifted off, looking down on the ragtag island.
Just 12 nautical miles from Pag-asa and its airstrip lies Subi Reef, one of the more developed Chinese settlements in the South China Sea.
Anchored just outside the reef were about 20 enormous Chinese fishing boats, along with 50 or so smaller sampans busily working.
At the southwest corner sat a complex of concrete multistory structures, including a large-domed radar station, a helipad and a dormitory.
Anchored just outside the reef were about 20 enormous Chinese fishing boats, along with 50 or so smaller sampans busily working.
At the southwest corner sat a complex of concrete multistory structures, including a large-domed radar station, a helipad and a dormitory.
It’s easy to make China out as the villain in all of this. Most Western narratives do, even though several U.S. government officials assured me that there weren’t truly any “good guys” in these territorial disputes. One benefit of China’s political system, whatever its problems, is its farsightedness, its ability to stomach intense upheaval in the present in order to achieve a long-term goal.
Subi was a result of this commitment. After spending a few days on Pag-asa, where everything is free but nothing works quite like it’s supposed to, it was hard not to see Subi reef as the Death Star.
An hour later, we flew over Lawak, where we’d met Lieutenant Retoriano. Soon after, the pilot asked Ashley Gilbertson, the photographer on our trip, to put his headset on. We were due north of Ayungin, and our pilot had radioed the guys on the Sierra Madre to see how they were doing. Loresto answered the call, and when he heard that we were on the plane, he asked to speak with us. Gilbertson put on the headset and smiled as broadly as he’d smiled since the night Loresto fleeced us at pusoy dos during the typhoon. The weather was good, Loresto said; they were going spearfishing that afternoon. Didn’t we want to come down and join them? There was animated talk about karaoke, and then Loresto signed off. It was obviously the last time that we would ever talk to him, or maybe that any Filipino would ever be at that radio post to talk to anybody like us.
The entire world has an interest in the South China Sea, but China has nearly 1.4 billion mouths and a growing appetite for nationalism to feed, which is a kind of pressure that no other country can understand. What will happen will happen, whatever the letter of the Asean code of conduct or however the arbitration turns out. Loresto and Yanto, meanwhile, still abide on the Sierra Madre, fishing for their subsistence and watching the surf to see what wave the Chinese will choose to ride in on.
“You’ve got the wrong science-fiction movie,” one former highly placed U.S. official later told me, when I described what we saw at Subi, and what it might mean for the guys on Ayungin. “It’s not the Death Star. It’s actually the Borg from ‘Star Trek’: ‘You will be assimilated. Resistance is futile.’ ” The scholar Huang Jing put it another, more organic way. “The Chinese expand like a forest, very slowly,” he said. “But once they get there, they never leave.”
Editor: Joel Lovell
Jeff Himmelman is a contributing writer for the magazine and the author of “Yours in Truth: A Personal Portrait of Ben Bradlee.” He last wrote for the magazine about Frank Ocean.