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 immediately,” the Chinese radioed in response.
The Cabra’s captain, Emmanuel Dangate, was on his eighth resupply mission. He had been instructed that day to get within three nautical miles of the shoal.
A few times, Captain Dangate ordered his crew to move the ship full speed ahead. They did so, shouting out to him the updated speeds of the Cabra and of the Chinese ships nearby.
A Chinese coast guard vessel crossed the Cabra’s bow at least twice. When the vessel was only yards away, the radar system turned red, warning of collision danger.
After about two hours, the Cabra finally inched closer to the mouth of the shoal, still surrounded by Chinese ships. Captain Dangate said it was the closest he had ever been to the military outpost. Throughout the journey, a U.S. Navy Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft hovered overhead.
Later in the day, the Philippines lodged a protest with China for what it described as “unprovoked acts of coercion.” A spokesman for China’s foreign ministry, Wang Wenbin, said the Philippine ships had “trespassed” into the waters, “violating China’s sovereignty.” He added that Beijing had protested the moves, and that the Chinese Coast Guard had taken “necessary law enforcement measures.”
The episode was part of a broader pattern that has been playing out in the South China Sea for years. China has repeatedly harassed the Philippines vessels as they sought to resupply the navy troops who guard the Sierra Madre. Each mission runs the risk of escalating into a broader conflict.
Since the start of the year, the Chinese coast guard has deployed a water cannon, shined a military-grade laser and collided with Philippine vessels. The United States has condemned the actions and vowed to aid the Philippines, its oldest treaty ally in the Indo-Pacific, in the event of an armed attack.
China says Manila previously agreed to tow away the Sierra Madre, a claim that President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. of the Philippines disputes. The Philippines maintains that it is well within its right to repair the ship, a commissioned navy vessel in its own territory.
In 2016, an international tribunal ruled that the Second Thomas Shoal — called Ayungin Shoal in the Philippines — is less than 200 nautical miles from Palawan and therefore part of the country’s exclusive economic zone. China, which claims 90 percent of the South China Sea, has rejected the ruling.
“It’s like a game of basketball,” said Rommel Jude G. Ong, a professor at the Ateneo School of Government in Manila and a retired rear admiral in the Philippine Navy. “You put up your guard so that they won’t be able to move forward. So that’s our guard post there, to check the advance.”
But decades of leaving the Sierra Madre exposed to the elements has worn down the ship. In 2018, the Philippine government commissioned a study to examine its viability and concluded that it had only two years left intact, according to Mr. Ong.
“Our projection was wrong, it’s still standing,” he said. “But you cannot fight physics, and you cannot fight Mother Nature. At some point, it is going to be decrepit enough that it is not able to sustain itself.”
Huge holes were visible at the bottom of the Sierra Madre; tires were used as weights against the wind. Boards and aluminum sheets served as makeshift doors and windows. On Friday morning, some crew members were bathing outside on the deck, scooping water kept in blue drum containers.
Philippine officials fear that when the ship falls apart, China will swoop in to claim the shoal, a submerged reef that is rich with fish and serves as a gateway to an area believed to contain vast reserves of oil and natural gas. That could also mean a potential Chinese advance on Palawan, the site of a new military base where the United States recently gained access.
Gen. Romeo J. Brawner, the armed forces chief of the Philippines, has proposed conducting joint patrols to the Second Thomas Shoal with other countries, a move that could further inflame tensions. He said in August that the government was mulling refurbishment of the Sierra Madre, though he did not provide specifics.
Manila has few good options. Building an entirely new military outpost could take months and would require transporting large amounts of construction materials that could be prevented by a Chinese blockade. The government even considered building a structure inside the Sierra Madre, said Mr. Ong, who likened it to the outer shell of an egg breaking up “with a chick inside.”
Ethel Olid, a municipal councilor from the town of Quezon, filed a resolution to urge all the towns in Palawan to give roughly $10,000 each for the rehabilitation of the Sierra Madre. That measure was approved in August.
“It’s a sad state for one of the remaining military outposts in the West Philippine Sea,” Mr. Olid said. “If we let it go or we let it collapse, we will lose Ayungin Shoal and our layer of defense.”
On Friday morning, as the Philippine supply boats approached the shoal, the Chinese boats gave up the chase. The Philippine military was able to board the Sierra Madre with food and fuel.
A tall concrete structure loomed at one end of the ship, with rooms that appeared to be unfinished. Atop of it was a steel post connected with wires, cameras and a satellite dish. On the far side, the Philippine flag billowed in the wind.
Sui-Lee Wee contributed reporting.