Chinese Frigate Runs Aground on Disputed Reef

Xinhua reported on Friday that a PLA Navy frigate had run aground on a reef in disputed waters in the South China Sea:

Chinese navy on Friday was conducting rescue mission of a frigate, who ran aground in the waters of China’s Nansha [or Spratly] Islands.

A news release on the website of the Defense Ministry, citing source from the ministry’s press department, said the frigate ran aground when conducting routine patrol mission in the waters around the Banyue Shoal about 7:00 p.m. Wednesday, with no casualties reported.

Xinhua’s report did not emerge, however, until the story had already been broken by The Sydney Morning Herald’s John Garnaut, whose account went into somewhat greater detail on the incident’s awkward context:

Salvage operations could be diplomatically challenging, given the vessel appears to have run aground within 200 kilometres of the Philippines coast, which is squarely within what Manila claims to be its Exclusive Economic Zone.

The stricken People’s Liberation Army Navy vessel, believed to be No. 560, a Jianghu-class frigate, has in the past been involved in aggressively discouraging Filipino fishing boats from the area.

The accident could not have come at a more embarrassing moment for the Chinese leadership, who have been pressing territorial claims and flexing the country’s muscle ahead of a leadership transition later this year.

The Philippines’ armed forces, perhaps rubbing salt in the wound, offered assistance with the rescue operation. But in the wake of accusations last month that a Chinese vessel had rammed a Philippine fishing boat, the accident highlights the risk that the long-running South China Sea dispute might run out of control. From Tania Branigan at The Guardian:

“We have to hear from them what happened. If it is in distress, we’re always ready to provide any assistance,” said Brigadier General Elmer Amon, the deputy regional commander.

[…] Ian Storey of the Institute of South-east Asian Studies in Singapore said that while the grounding was in itself unlikely to escalate tensions, it indicated the growing militarisation of the waters. “Resolution of the dispute is even further out of reach,” he added. “No one seriously envisages a major conflict in the South China Sea because it’s not in anyone’s interests. They depend on those sea lanes for the continued functioning of their economies.

“The real risk is that an accidental clash occurs and escalates. In my mind, it is just a matter of time before one of these standoffs gets really ugly and people get killed.”

Update: Xinhua reports that the frigate is afloat again:

The frigate stranded in the waters around the Banyue Shoal of Nansha Islands managed to refloat on its own at around 5 a.m. Sunday with the assistance of the Chinese navy’s rescue force, a news release posted on the website of the country’s Defense Ministry said.

The fore body of the ship was slightly injured, all staffs were safe and the ship will be on a return voyage, according to the statement.

“It has not caused any contamination for the nearby waters,” the statement said.