The New York Times - A Game of Shark and Minnow > 15min

Ayungin Shoal lies 105 nautical miles from the Philippines. There’s little to commend the spot, apart from its plentiful fish and safe harbor — except that Ayungin sits at the southwestern edge of an area called Reed Bank, which is rumored to contain vast reserves of oil and natural gas. And also that it is home to a World War II-era ship called the Sierra Madre, which the Philippine government ran aground on the reef in 1999 and has since maintained as a kind of post-apocalyptic military garrison, the small detachment of Filipino troops stationed there struggling to survive extreme mental and physical desolation. Of all places, the scorched shell of the Sierra Madre has become an unlikely battleground in a geopolitical struggle that will shape the future of the South China Sea and, to some extent, the rest of the world. … It was hard to imagine how such a forsaken place could become a flash point in a geopolitical power struggle. … To understand how Ayungin (known to the Western world as Second Thomas Shoal) could become contested ground is to confront, in miniature, both the rise of China and the potential future of U.S. foreign policy. It is also to enter into a morass of competing historical, territorial and even moral claims in an area where defining what is true or fair may be no easier than it has proved to be in the Middle East. … The Spratly Islands sprawl over roughly 160,000 square miles in the waters of the coasts of the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, Taiwan and China — all of whom claim part of the islands. Since the 18th century, navigators have referred to the Spratlys as “Dangerous Ground” — a term that captures not only the treacherous nature of the area but also the mess that is the current political situation in the South China Sea. … Why the fuss over “Dangerous Ground”? Natural resources are a big piece of it. According to current U.S. estimates, the seabed beneath the Spratlys may hold up to 5.4 billion barrels of oil and 55.1 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. On top of which, about half of the world’s merchant fleet tonnage and nearly one third of its crude oil pass through these waters each year. They also contain some of the richest fisheries in the world. … What China has done with Mischief, Scarborough and now with Ayungin is what the journalist Robert Haddick described, writing in Foreign Policy, as “salami slicing” or “the slow accumulation of actions, none of which is a casus belli, but which add up over time to a major strategic change.”