By Raïssa Robles
Both China and the Philippines are not about to say anything more about the embarrassing incident of a modern warship getting stuck on an undersea rock during peacetime and in the absence of a tropical storm. The Sydney Morning Herald which broke the news identified the ship that ran aground at Half Moon (or Hasa Hasa) Shoal as a Jianghu-class frigate no. 560.
Warship grounding implications
South China Morning Post’s Beijing correspondent Teddy Ng wrote about the implications of this accident on China’s ambition to be a maritime power. He said:
Some analysts said the accident reflected defects in China’s navy that could affect its ability to exert sovereignty in the South China Sea.
“It affects people’s confidence in the capability of the navy,” said Shanghai-based military analyst Ni Lexiong . “The accident indicates that the technology of Chinese navy vessels and the ocean combat capability of the navy may not be sophisticated enough.”
Antony Wong Dong, president of the Macau-based International Military Association, said the accident may have occurred because Chinese navy officers were not fully familiar with conditions in the South China Sea.
“Even though the accident may not significantly affect the South China Sea situation, Vietnam and the Philippines might still feel more at ease,” he said.
The news could not have come at a more inconvenient time for China, which was savoring a diplomatic triumph — it had succeeded, through its ASEAN ally Cambodia, in preventing the ASEAN foreign ministers from issuing a joint communiqué mentioning the conflict in the South China Sea.
I decided to ask a retired Filipino admiral who has personally commanded nine ships, including the flagship of the Philippine Navy, what he thought of the incident. He spoke to me on condition of anonymity.
Initially, I thought napakabobo naman noong ship captain, na hindi mo alam pupuntaahan mo. (At first I thought, what a stupid ship captain, who didn’t know where he was going). He is stupid or negligent. I think negligent would be the better word. He was negligent of his duties.
He explained that modern warships now have equipment that tap satellite data:
These ships now have depth perception. So they know what is under. I’m sure they are using the satellite for navigation.
A lot of devices now use satellite. The iPhone uses satellite. Ships use satellite. They know where they are all the time. They even know the depth of the sea where they are going. That is what I’m saying.
They should be able to determine through the satellite where the reefs are. These should have been avoided by the captain of the vessel. Navigation is always preventive.
And even without satellite, a captain maneuvering in shallow waters would think of posting lookouts. He himself has steered ships in those waters, he said.
He noted one thing that a ship captain always has to remember about reefs:
The reefs – they grow everyday – year in year out. It’s nature’s way. They grow larger and larger as long as they’re alive. They die when there’s pollution. So you can’t rely just on old maps. I’m sure the ship captain (of the Chinese frigate) was not using the old maps.
My source correctly surmised that it was the bow (the front) of the Chinese frigate that got grounded. A Reuters news agency report, quoting China’s defense ministry, said “the bow (of the frigate) has sustained light damage and everybody on board is safe.”
My source said Filipino mariners use a Tagalog word derived from Spanish to describe when a ship accidentally gets trapped or stuck or caught. They says it’s “nabahura.”
My source also said a lot of factors contribute to the accidental grounding of a ship. Sometimes a ship gets stuck because of low tide. It only has to wait 12 hours for the next high tide to free itself, he said. But in this instance, the ship got stuck Thursday night and was unstuck only by early Sunday morning with the aid of six Chinese navy ships which came to the rescue.
And to think that one of China’s boasts is that a Chinese astronomer named Guo Shoujing had surveyed the South China Sea area as far back as 1279 and then made a map showing all those islands and rocks and shoals, including Scarborough Shoal.
It is true that the Philippine Navy has also grounded two ships in the same vicinity. In 1999, BRP (Barko ng Republika ng Pilipinas) Sierra Madre went aground on Ayungin Reef (internationally known as the Second Thomas Reef). In the same year, BRP Benguet went aground on Panatag Shoal (internationally named Scarborough Shoal)
Both ships, however, were World War II ships which had long been decommissioned by the US and then recommissioned by the Philippines.
China accused the Philippines then of intentionally grounding those ships to serve as forward bases and demanded their removal. BRP Benguet was subsequently unstuck from Panatag Shoal, but in 2004, it got stuck again on Pagasa Island (or Thitu island) in the Kalayaan Island Group. It is there to this day.
It seems, however, that the recent grounding of a Chinese warship of the Jianghu V Class is a different case altogether. Where the Philippine Navy has to make do with ships several generations old, this class of warship dates back to the 1970s, and this particular vessel had just been retrofitted last year. A blog called china-defense.blogspot.com had this to say about this type of warship:
The latest improvements include new air-search and fire-control radars, new twin 100mm main gun turrets to replace the old models, the addition of 37mm CIWS mounts, and the replacement of Silkworms with YJ-83 anti-ship missiles.
The Philippine military earlier tagged the same kind of warship as having fired at Filipino fishermen near Jackson atoll a year ago.
China has the second largest navy in the world today in terms of ships. We have one of the puniest navies. However, we have one of the largest manpower and some of the world’s finest mariners sailing the seven seas, except that they are manning foreign vessels.
With sailing abilities like this, who knows perhaps we might see a Chinese warship running aground on Palawan. And China will say it’s still their territory.