“It’s still a functioning ship. It’s just considered a ship in distress,” Galvez said.
Satellite phones also keep them in contact with their families during tours of duty, which last between three and six months, Sabban said.
The nearest manned rock is Mischief Reef (Meiji Reef, 美濟礁) about 40km away, but the neighbors are not considered friendly.
Mischief Reef is claimed by the Philippines as part of its territory because, like the Second Thomas Shoal, it is within the country’s internationally recognized exclusive economic zone.
However, in 1995 Chinese forces moved onto the then-unoccupied reef, building fortifications that China initially described as harmless fishermen’s shelters. Chinese forces have been stationed there ever since.
After that the Philippines announced on Tuesday it had lodged a formal protest about the Chinese warship and the fishing vessels, China responded by insisting again that it owned the area and that all other parties were there illegally.
“China has indisputable sovereignty over the Nansha Islands and their adjacent waters,” Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Hong Lei (洪磊) said in Beijing.
“Patrols by Chinese official ships in the waters are justified,” Hong added.
Ian Storey, a senior fellow at the Singapore-based Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, said the presence of the warship showed China was prepared to use its growing military power to protect its far-roaming fishing vessels.
“It’s a fairly strong signal that, increasingly, China is going to provide naval as well as civilian assets to protect its fishing fleets,” he said. “Of course, there’s always a danger in this kind of situation where either through miscommunication or misperception an accidental clash takes place,” he said.