World Affairs Brief, February 9, 2018 Commentary and Insights on a Troubled World.
Copyright Joel Skousen. Partial quotations with attribution permitted. Cite source as Joel Skousen’s World Affairs Brief (http://www.worldaffairsbrief.com).
CHINA MILITARIZATION OF SOUTH CHINA SEA REEFS ALMOST COMPLETE
Trump is turning out to be all talk and no action when it comes to China’s aggressive policy of building military facilities on a series of coral reefs in territory claimed by the Philippines. All of the larger islands are already claimed and so to advance China’s “String of Pearls” policy of establishing naval and air bases surrounding Chinese waters, China has taken to expanding unwanted reefs and barely visible sea mounts in order to expand its military bases without directly taking land in use by others.
It’s an insidious and devious tactic that allows China maximum leverage without directly challenging existing land claims. While the Philippines do claim the area, they’ve never done anything with these heretofore “useless” mini-islands. In an in-depth report, complete with extensive photographs, the Inquirer.net documents that China has almost finished transforming seven reefs claimed by the Philippines in the Spratly archipelago into island fortresses, “in a bid to dominate the heavily disputed South China Sea.” I’ll summarize the main points, but encourage everyone to go to the article to see the pictures.
Most of the photos, taken between June and December 2017, were snapped from an altitude of 1,500 meters and they showed the reefs that had been transformed into artificial islands in the final stages of development as air and naval bases.
With its construction unrestrained, China will soon have military bastions on Kagitingan Reef, known internationally as Fiery Cross Reef; Calderon (Cuarteron), Burgos (Gaven), Mabini (Johnson South), Panganiban (Mischief), Zamora (Subi) and McKennan (Hughes) reefs from which to project its power throughout the region.
One of the reefs, Panganiban, lies within the Philippines’ 370-kilometer exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in the South China Sea. The UN-backed Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague has ruled that Panganiban Reef belongs to the Philippines.
In a report on China’s militarization of the South China Sea last December, US think tank Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (Amti) said Kagitingan Reef had the most construction in 2017, with work spanning 110,000 square meters.
The runways for the three biggest reefs—Kagitingan, Panganiban and Zamora—appeared either completed or almost ready for use. Lighthouses, radomes, communication facilities, hangars and multistory buildings had also been built on the artificial islands.
Amti, which described 2017 as a “constructive year for Chinese base building” in the South China Sea, noted the presence of underground tunnels, missile shelters, radars and high-frequency antennas on the artificial islands.
The extent of development on the reefs show that China has gone ahead with building military outposts in the Spratlys despite a 2002 agreement with the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) not to change any features in the sea.
At the same time, China has softened the impact of its military buildup with pledges of investments to the Philippines and talk of a framework for negotiating with Asean a code of conduct for the management of rival claims in the strategic waterway.
Besides the Philippines and China, Brunei, Malaysia and Vietnam also claim parts of the Spratly archipelago. Taiwan is a sixth claimant.
Watch how President Duterte of the Philippines has been lulled in false security by China’s commitment not to reclaim any more islands. In other words, “drop your protests on what we have done so far and we won’t do any more.”
[Philippines] Presidential spokesperson Harry Roque told a news briefing early last month that China’s militarization in the South China Sea was no longer news but the Philippines would not protest as long as China kept its “good faith commitment” that it would not reclaim any more islands in the waterway.
But some leaders in the Philippines are clear: “Don’t trust a thief”
Supreme Court Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio, a member of the legal team that argued the Philippine case against China’s claim to almost the entire South China Sea in the Hague arbitral court, slammed Roque’s position, comparing it to trusting a thief.
“You don’t rely on the good faith of the thief [who’s trying to break] into your house. If you have that mindset, you rely on the good faith of someone who’s trying to break into your house, that means you’re out [of touch] with reality. You’re in a fantasyland. That’s not how the world is put together. That’s not realpolitik,” Carpio said.
“The biggest [security] problem is China. If we lose [our maritime space in the West Philippine Sea], we lose it forever,” Carpio told the Inquirer in a recent interview, using the local name of the waters within the Philippines’ EEZ in the South China Sea. “And the area we will lose is huge, as big as the land area of the Philippines, about 300,000 square kilometers,” Carpio said.
China will never return the territory it grabs, he added. “We cannot go to the [International Court of Justice] because China has to agree and China will never agree to submit to arbitration.”
China has ignored the Hague tribunal’s July 2016 ruling that invalidated Beijing’s sweeping claim to the South China Sea and declared it violated Manila’s sovereign right to fish and explore for resources in its own EEZ.
But President Duterte, who came to power two weeks before the ruling came down, has refused to assert the Philippine victory, wooing China instead for loans and investments.
China has been only too glad to be neighborly to the Philippines but it has also been determined to finish its island fortresses in the South China Sea and present its rivals for territory in the waterway with a fait accompli when they sit down to negotiate the code of conduct.
If the Philippines does not assert its legal victory, it stands to lose 80 percent of its EEZ in the South China Sea, covering 381,000 square kilometers of maritime space, including the entire Recto Bank, or Reed Bank, and part of the Malampaya gas field off Palawan, as well as all of the fishery, oil and gas and mineral resources there, Carpio said.
“My estimate is 40 percent of water in the Philippines is in the West Philippine Sea, so that’s 40 percent of the fish that we can catch and we will lose that as a food source,” he said.
“Malampaya supplies 40 percent of the energy requirement of Luzon. If Malampaya runs out of gas in 10 years or less . . . we will have 10 to 12 hours of daily brownouts in Luzon. It will devastate the economy,” he added.
Of course, the Philippines knows it doesn’t have the military might to challenge China, and having spurned an alliance with the US, it has placed itself in the position of being bribed and subtly threatened into believing in China’s “good faith,” which is worthless.
But in the larger picture, the real problem is President Trump’s complete failure to stand up to China. Sure, there was the campaign rhetoric, but every meeting since has proven to China that Trump is a “paper tiger.” In an accurate article from the Atlantic, the author wrote: “China Loves Trump—The people love a winner and the leadership loves a dupe.”
In January of last year, around the time of the presidential inauguration, as jitters about the relationship between Donald Trump and China mounted, I regularly joined the mob of reporters at the Chinese foreign ministry’s daily briefings in Beijing. There, the assembled members of the media would press officials on Trump’s latest anti-China comment or Twitter blast—on tariffs, trade wars, North Korea, or China’s “theft” of American jobs. Reporters expected righteous denunciations of the kind China routinely unleashes against South Korea, the Philippines, and other countries perceived as even notionally affronting Chinese interests. But they never came. Day after day, the spokespeople stubbornly, and then impatiently, accentuated a positive view of the prospects for U.S.–Chinese ties under Trump.
Likewise in the state media. While American pundits warned that conflict between the world’s top two economies would lead to meltdown, or speculated about China’s putatively enraged reaction to Trump’s phone call with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, Beijing’s state-sanctioned media outlets retained a strangely forbearing, at times vaguely optimistic, tone about the relationship.
From the very beginning, the Communist Party seems to have understood that Trump’s threats were, for the most part, merely for show. By refusing to be rattled, China has enjoyed a series of rhetorical and strategic triumphs that have enhanced its global image and increased its international influence. China also appears to have assessed that Trump, the self-proclaimed master deal maker, would rather have a bad deal than no deal at all, and could be persuaded to compromise on almost anything in order to declare a “win.”
US Conservatives are finding this is “sad but true.”