For the last 75 years, Beijing has been on a slow, methodical march south through the South China Sea (SCS). This second “Long March” has seen China take de facto control of the SCS. In doing so, China has flouted international maritime law and, more routinely as of late, dangerously and violently attacked vessels of other regional states such as the Philippines.

Manila has drawn the ire of the Chinese president (in reality, dictator), Xi Jinping, as it has embarked on a campaign to expose the Chinese harassment and unprofessional maritime conduct. The most recent bone of contention is the revelation of Chinese survey crews and evidence of dredging at Escoda Shoal, which lies about 100 miles from the Philippine Island of Palawan. China, of course, vigorously denies any work occurring at Escoda Shoal. Nonetheless, will this be a redline for Manila?

The Central Importance of Escoda Shoal

Escoda Shoal is of vital importance to Manila for two primary reasons. First, it is the jumping-off point for supply runs to the grounded BRP (Philippine Navy) Sierra Madre, an intentionally grounded, World War II tank-landing ship housing Philippine Marines. The BRP Sierra Madre’s presence maintains the Philippine government’s claim to its portion of the Spratley Islands. China urgently desires to cut off support for the Sierra Madre and further strengthen its false claim to ownership of the SCS.

Second, were China to turn Escoda Shoal into another military outpost, it will be able to increase naval and coast guard presence at Reed Bank. This location is rich in oil and gas and has the potential to supply the Philippines with energy for the next 75 years. Currently, the Malampaya gas field is (and has been for 25 years) a primary source of gas for the Philippines. However, Reed Bank is two to three times larger (GMA Integrated News, 2024). Thus, the loss of access to Reed Bank is directly tied to the loss of energy security for Manila.

Evidence of Chinese Activity

Escoda Shoal, lying approximately 90 to 100 miles from the Philippine island of Palawan, is showing telltale signs of activity that display China’s desire to develop the maritime feature into a new outpost. According to Philippine Coast Guard officials, crushed coral has been observed in sufficient amounts to alter the elevation of the sandbars at the shoal (McCartney, 2024). Leveling the shoal would precede the construction of military-related infrastructure. In addition to the crushed coral, three Chinese vessels have been observed circling the shoal as well. Two of these ships are research vessels used to deploy smaller service boats that carry divers and equipment to survey the seabed (Robson, 2024).

Moving Forward

Manila currently claims nine maritime features, ranging from islands to atolls, that they have occupied from the 1970s to today. These are features that the Manila government must firmly assert its sovereignty over, or risk losing them to the rapacious Communist Chinese government.

Fortunately, the way forward is clear: Manila, must begin reinforcing its presence on all of its maritime claims with military or law-enforcement infrastructure. They have begun such activity on Thitu Island, and this must serve as a new pattern of behavior and vigilance.

Just last year, Manila finished construction of a two-story coast guard station which has, or will shortly have, “radar, ship-tracking, and other monitoring equipment to observe China’s actions in the hotly disputed waters and other problems, including sea accidents” (Gomez et al., 2023). Additionally, the island has a runway, wharf, grade school, gymnasium, and more for its 250 inhabitants (Gomez et al., 2023).

The Big Picture

This all begs the question, why has China been on an island-building campaign? The answer lies in what is beneath the seafloor of the SCS, what sails on its surface, and the vital importance of both.

Geographically, China is ringed by states, many of which are allies of the U.S., namely South Korea, Japan and the Philippines. This puts Beijing at a great strategic disadvantage in terms of having its supply lines cut. This is particularly true with regard to energy imports. Currently, India and the U.S. have the potential to shut down the some of the most important waterways to China, the southeast Asian straits of Malacca, Sunda and Lombok.

These are the maritime gateways that all east-bound shipping traffic must pass through before reaching China, as well as west-bound commercial traffic to Africa, Europe and the Middle East. If these gateways were closed, China would have half of its Middle Eastern oil imports denied overnight (Bradstock, 2023). Similarly, a large portion of its commercial traffic would suffer a similar fate. In sum, an “estimated one-third of global maritime trade and 30 percent of global oil shipments” (McGillis, 2021, p. 6) traverse the SCS. Thus, for China, keeping those straits open is of the highest importance.

The Importance of Backyard Energy

Given that half of China’s energy resources come from the Middle East, a staggering 70 percent of its total oil imports come from abroad (Bradstock, 2023), it is that much more important to have reliable and easily secured sources of energy near its home shores. This is yet another reason why controlling the SCS is strategically vital. Below the seafloor, is a treasure trove of energy waiting to be exploited. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, “over 10 billion barrels of oil and nearly 200 trillion cubic feet of natural gas in proved and probable reserves rest beneath it” (McGillis, 2021, p. 7).

Most of these resources are found within the legally recognized exclusive economic zones (EEZ) of Southeast Asian states, which ring the SCS. It is now clear that harassing and attacking Filippino sailors, coast guard and fisherman is but one pixel of a much larger picture and strategy. Beijing must crush the resistance of regional states (like the Philippines) and their legal claims to its EEZs in order to secure its energy and trade corridors as well as control energy resources in its backyard.


To anyone who closely follows global news, it seems that a week does not pass without reports of Filippino sailors or fishermen being harassed or directly assaulted via water cannon or intentional collision by Chinese coast guard vessels or its maritime militia. Beijing employs these coercive tactics to intimidate regional states so it can illegally gain control of its maritime resources such as oil, natural gas and fisheries.

The ability of Chinese coast guard and maritime militia to be seemingly omnipresent is due to the construction of its manmade island outposts and fortresses. These installations (many of which are complete with runways, hangars, barracks, missile and gun emplacements) allow China to maintain a forward presence and lay claim to the entirety of the South China Sea, according to its ludicrous historical or ancestral rights.  Control of this large body of water grants Beijing near total control of the fossil fuels lying beneath the seabed and extended security for its merchant vessels coming to China with raw materials, oil and natural gas.

For the Philippines, as it is with other regional states who have their EEZ at stake, there is much to lose, including energy security and fishing rights. Therefore, the Philippines must, as quickly as possible, build further island outposts of its own (within its EEZ) such as on Thitu Island, to head off the illegal encroachment of Beijing. The U.S. Navy can help with this, the Seabees should be deployed to aid Manila in the construction of coast guard and naval outposts, as a buffer against Chinese expansion. This would be a tangible sign of unity and comradery with the Filipino population in the protection of their maritime territory.  The clock is ticking quickly, and the time to act is now.


 Bradstock, F. (2023, January 4). Is China overly reliant on Middle Eastern oil? Oil

GMA Integrated News (2024, May15). Losing Escoda Shoal to China will threaten PH energy security — Carpio. GMA Integrated News.

Gomez, J., Favila, A. & Calupitan, J. (2023, December 1). The Philippines opens a new monitoring base on a remote island in the disputed South China Sea. Associated Press.                                          

McCartney, M. (2024, May 14). China suspected of building new artificial island. Newsweek.

McGillis, J. (2021). Oil, gas, and the South China Sea: How China’s energy expansionism threatens a free and open Indo-Pacific. Institute for Energy Research.                                      content/uploads/2021/10/OIL_GAS_AND-THE-SOUTH-CHINA-SEA_10.13.21.pdf

Robson, S. (2024, May 14). Philippine Coast Guard accuses China of island-building on disputed shoal. Stars And Stripes.

Author’s Bio

Chris MartinAuthor Pic

Christian P. Martin is a Michigan-based military researcher and writer. He earned his Master’s degree in Defense and Strategic Studies from the University of Texas at El Paso. His professional interests are history, land, and naval warfare, both conventional and unconventional, with a focus on the developing world and an emergent China.