China has had a strange and unusually busy week.
On Monday, a new dispute between Beijing and Manila broke out as the saga surrounding the alleged spy balloon entered its eleventh day. This one concerned lasers.
A Philippine coastguard boat was allegedly targeted by a "military grade" laser light from China, according to the Philippines. The ship was attempting to transport supplies to Filipino marines in the South China Sea on February 6 when it was stopped by a Chinese coastguard vessel, which blocked its path and used a laser device to temporarily blind the Filipino crew.
Although the type and power of the Chinese crew's weapon are unknown, laser weapons that are intended to impair vision are prohibited by a UN convention. Numerous nations, including those in the United States, Australia, Japan, and Germany, swiftly condemned the incident. .
China, on the other hand, defended its right to employ lasers in order to safeguard its "sovereignty" before denying shining a light at the Filipino crew, claiming they had instead used a "hand-held laser speed detector and hand-held greenlight pointer," neither of which are dangerous.
All this on top of an underwater reef.
The Philippine naval ship Sierra Madre, which Manila uses to assert its authority in this region, was visited by the BBC in 2014. There was no sign of our target on the horizon as the sun arose across the South China Sea.
Over the sound of the engine, the skipper who was escorting us to the ship yelled, "Don't worry, I know where I'm going. It is located on that reef. " .
A rusting grey hulk sitting grounded atop the enormous submerged reef that was just a few feet below the surface of the water materialized as he pointed north.
Even in its youth, the Sierra Madre was not a particularly magnificent ship. It served with the US navy in the Vietnam War after being constructed as a tank landing ship during World War Two. She joined the South Vietnamese navy in 1970, and after Saigon fell in 1975, she was sent to the Philippines. The aging ship was purposefully beached on top of this reef in 1999, 160 kilometers (100 miles) off the coast of the Philippines.
Large holes could be seen rusted straight through the ship's hull as the small fishing boat got closer. It appeared as though she would be lost in the next typhoon. .
The Sierra Madre is still standing after almost ten years, with more concrete and rust than steel. Additionally, a small group of Filipino marines continue to lead precarious lives aboard.
The Philippine vessel may have been blocked by the Chinese coast guard ship in violation of international law. No matter what Beijing claims, China does not own the waters surrounding the rusting Sierra Madre.
The Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague issued a definitive decision in 2016. International law does not support China's claim to a significant portion of the South China Sea, also known as the "nine-dash line.".
Naturally, it's not quite that easy. .
The islands, reefs, and waters of the South China Sea are the subject of numerous claims and counterclaims. Only the most expansive is China's. The claims of the Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan, and Malaysia to smaller portions of the sea overlap. Additionally, the majority of those assertions are not supported by international law.
The corroding Sierra Madre of the Philippines is perched atop a reef also known as Second Thomas Shoal, Ayungen Shoal, and Ren-ai Reef in Chinese. The control of a reef, however, does not grant a country any new territorial waters or extend its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), as a submerged reef is not considered land.
The South China Sea is largely devoid of actual land. There are a few tiny islets in the Spratly Islands, which are the most contentious region. The largest is referred to as Taiping Dao. It is only 400 meters wide and 1,000 meters long.
It is now governed by Taiwan due to a historical accident. Pagasa, the second-largest, is so named. It takes 30 minutes to walk around. In 1971, when the Taiwanese troops stationed there evacuated due to a severe typhoon, the Philippines seized Pagasa. Other slivers of land exist in Vietnam.
But China was too late and had no actual land because it was preoccupied with internal unrest during the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s and 1970s. This led it to decide to create its own.
China had started a sizable land reclamation project while a few Filipino marines clung to the rusting decks of the Sierra Madre 40 kilometers (25 miles) away on Mischief Reef Atoll. Millions of tonnes of gravel and sand were being pumped onto the top of the reef by the largest ocean-going dredgers in the world, creating a massive artificial island.
The new land that China has created at Mischief Reef is entirely within the Philippines' 320 km (200 mile) Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), which is internationally recognized.
International law does not recognize the new island. China does not have the right to 20 km (12 miles) of territorial waters as a result. Beijing, however, has continued to enforce its claims, drive away Philippine fishermen, and engage Philippine coastguard vessels using its sizable coastguard and maritime militia fleet.
Military strategists refer to China's new islands as "facts on the ground"; in other words, they are the reality, not some legal concept.
Manila residents worry that China's ambitions extend beyond Mischief Reef. Ayungen Shoal might come up next. That is why the Sierra Madre's rusting wreck has such symbolic significance in this situation.
It's also the reason the administration of President Ferdinand Bongbong Marcos Jr. is allowing a sizable influx of US troops to reoccupy bases in the Philippines after a 30-year absence.