A Game of Shark and Minnow
Quote:A Game of Shark And Minnow
By Jeff Himmelman
Photographs and video by Ashley Gilbertson
Produced by Mike Bostock, Clinton Cargill, Shan Carter, Nancy Donaldson, Tom Giratikanon, Xaquín G.V., Steve Maing and Derek Watkins
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.
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. 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.
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 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, 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.”
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 — 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.
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.
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!”