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What does Beijing think is happening at Second Thomas Shoal this weekend?

The Philippines' well-publicized civilian "Christmas Convoy" has departed on the first leg of its voyage to to bring holiday cheer to military troops stationed around the West Philippine Sea. It explicitly won't be visiting the outpost aboard the BRP Sierra Madre at Second Thomas Shoal, but China seems to be ramping up to oppose any approaches anyway.
Ray Powell | DECEMBER 8, 2023
What does Beijing think is happening at Second Thomas Shoal this weekend?

Ray Powell

Director

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Yesterday the South China Sea Probing Initiative, a Peking University-based think tank, boldly published "BREAKING" news (above) that the Philippines will "probably" conduct a resupply mission to its outpost aboard the BRP Sierra Madre at Second Thomas (Ayungin) Shoal this weekend, 9-10 December. These monthly resupplies have been the catalyst for regular confrontations between the two countries, and have resulted in incidents of Chinese ships swarming, blocking, water-cannoning and pointing lasers at and colliding with Philippine Coast Guard ships and resupply boats.

This marks the second time in nine days this group has predicted an imminent resupply. Last time it didn't happen, nor did Philippine Coast Guard ship BRP Melchora Aquino ever leave Palawan, contrary to its report:

So perhaps we should take this prediction as well with a grain of salt. 

Still, there is evidence that China's coast guard and maritime militia also believe that this time something is coming. Within the past 24 hours, eight of China's large Qiong Sansha Yu militia ships steamed in from stations 130-300 kilometers away into the PRC's Mischief Reef military base. This brought the total number of this ship type--which frequently participates in blockade activities--in the Mischief Reef-Second Thomas Shoal area to 27. This is in addition to at least two large China Coast Guard ships--hull numbers 5305 and 5402--that can be seen in the same area.

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China Coast Guard and maritime militia ships at Mischief Reef (left) and Second Thomas Shoal (right)

Meanwhile, open-source intelligence (OSINT) sleuth MT Anderson also identified four large PLA Navy vessels and three smaller Coast Guard ship among those vessels tied up along the pier at Mischief Reef.

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So is another resupply mission imminent? It's not impossible, as the last resupply took place nearly a month ago. Another should be happening soon based merely on historical precedent.

On the other hand, we do know of one very well-publicized voyage leaving this weekend for the West Philippine Sea--one which is explicitly not going to visit the Sierra Madre, though it will traverse the "vicinity" of Second Thomas Shoal.

This civilian-led, 40-ship "Christmas Convoy" is perhaps the most dramatic example of the strong national resilience against PRC harassment and coercion that has been fueled by Manila's highly successful West Philippine Sea assertive transparency campaign of 2023.

So what exactly does Beijing think is about to happen? Are its propagandists and maritime commanders worried the Christmas Convoy will attempt a bull-rush to the Sierra Madre, despite the clear announcements that it will not? Do they think the Philippine Coast Guard will take the opportunity to resupply the ship while the convoy is in the area? Do they have inside information ... or are they just confused?

Ray Powell

Ray is the Director of SeaLight and Project Lead for Project Myoushu at Stanford University's Gordian Knot Center for National Security Innovation. He's a 35-year veteran of the U.S. Air Force and was a 2021 Fellow at Stanford's Distinguished Careers Institute.

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