'US may come to PH's defense if China removes ship'

Posted at 04/03/14 4:37 PM

An aerial view of BRP Sierra Madre, a World War II-era ship that is grounded on a remote, tiny reef, is the Philippines' last line of defence against China. Photo: AFP/WESCOM Handout

MANILA - China can never legally acquire a territory through conquest, an international law expert said.

University of the Philippines’ Harry Roque said China should rethink its plans to tow away a commissioned naval vessel, such as the rusty BRP Sierra Madre that remains grounded at Ayungin Shoal.

“Even if China were to remove the Sierra Madre from Ayungin shoal and build yet another artificial island there, it will never acquire title over the area. The reason: international law has long outlawed the acquisition of territory through conquest,” he said.

The removal of the rusty ship there may also trigger assistance from the United States, he added.

The BRP Sierra Madre was grounded at Ayungin to symbolize the Philippines’ claim to the shoal, known internationally as the Second Thomas Shoal.

BRP Sierra Madre was the former US tank-landing ship USS Harnett County which the Philippines inherited in 1976.

The military intentionally ran it aground at the disputed area more than two decades later.

On Saturday, a Philippine civilian ship outmaneuvered bigger Chinese ships guarding the area in order to replenish the food and water needed by soldiers holding post at the decrepit BRP Sierra Madre.

“Derelict as it may be, it is subject to full sovereign immunity and any attempt to tow it away from Ayungin may finally trigger the applicability of the US-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty,” Roque said.

While the treaty may not be triggered due to any fighting, Roque said “an attack against a Philippine commissioned naval vessel may be sufficient for the purpose. The result: the West Philippine Sea, unless China backs off, may trigger the biggest armed conflict in the region since the Vietnam and Indo-China conflict.”