July 19, 2012:
On July 11th, a Chinese Type 053 frigate, the Dongguan, ran aground on a reef off the Philippines coast near Half Moon Shoal. This happened 111 kilometers from the Philippines (Palawan Island) and over 1,100 kilometers from the Chinese mainland. China promptly ordered 30 fishing boats to go to the area and fish and try to keep foreign boats away. China also sent marine salvage boats to help get the Dongguan off the reef, which was accomplished on July 15th.
Letting a 2,400 ton warship (carrying a crew of 200) to move around in these shallow and treacherous waters at night is asking for trouble. The waters west of the Philippines (including all the reefs, shoals, atolls, and islets claimed by China) are shallow and full of obstacles just under the water. Even shallow draft fishing boats proceed carefully and usually just in daylight. GPS and recent efforts to fully map (chart) the area have made it safer but only for those who proceed with care.
The Chinese warship was technically not supposed to be near Half Moon Shoal and was, according to international law, within the Filipino "exclusive economic zone." China insists that international agreements do not apply in its dispute with the Philippines over most island and reefs like Half Moon Shoal. Chinese warships entering the Filipino exclusive economic zone (anything within 380 kilometers of land) are violating a 2002 agreement by nations bordering the South China Sea. Severn years after signing the 2002 agreement China changed its mind and is now claiming ownership of the entire South China Sea.
Chinese government-controlled media (especially newspapers) increasingly warn that China would do whatever it takes to enforce its claim, no matter who (like the United States) backs the Philippines. That's pretty scary stuff coming from government owned media. That's what China is trying to do, scare everyone away from territory they have no legal claim on but are determined to take possession of.
This is a classic Chinese strategy, the "death of a thousand cuts." China avoids declaring war and just wears down the opposition with thousands of little violations, like having a small, elderly, frigate patrolling 111 kilometers from the opponent's coast. The Philippines do not have the resources to block these Chinese incursions, and the United States has not shown any enthusiasm about doing it for them.
China recently upgraded the Dongguan and the other five Type 053H1G frigates, apparently in order keep them in service for another decade or more. Originally built in the 1990s, the six Type 053H1G ships were the last of 53 Type 053s built over about twenty years. Based on the older Russian Riga class frigate, the Chinese expanded the original 1,400 ton Riga (armed with depth charges, three 100mm guns, and torpedoes) design, to a missile laden 2,500 ton vessel equipped with modern electronics. The few Type 53s still in service are mainly used for coastal patrol.