Last month it appeared that the Chinese were again on the move in the South China Sea.
The provincial administrator of Beijing’s land claims in the region told Chinese state media that work would soon begin on an ‘environmental monitoring station’ on Scarborough Shoal, a large reef system just 140 nautical miles west of Subic Bay, well within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone.
Former Philippines National Security Advisor, Roilo Golez, explained that China planned to build an airfield, a radar facility, a government administrative centre, living quarters and a resort on the fragile coral atoll. The immediate reaction of Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte was to express his frustration at being powerless to stop China’s island building on Manila’s door-step. ‘We cannot stop China from doing this thing,’ Duterte said.
During the last decade the Chinese have effectively seized over 80 percent of the South China Sea, an area about the size of Western Europe from Poland’s eastern border to the English Channel. The Chinese claim almost all of the waters from Hainan in the north to Indonesia and Malaysia in the south. This area carries over half the world’s merchant shipping, it is a key military transit route, an important fishery, and its seabed holds valuable oil and gas reserves.
In five years the Chinese have built 12 militarily significant facilities in the South China Sea including three major fighter bases towards the centre of the sea, each with protected facilities for 24 fighter-bombers. The facilities apparently planned for Scarborough Shoal would extend this network to provide the Chinese with radar coverage over much of the Philippines strategic heartland, including Subic Bay naval base.
Beijing is applying Chinese domestic law to all claimed areas and it has harassed and arrested numerous foreign fishing and other vessels. Beijing appears intent on turning most of the South China Sea into something approaching an internal waterway. China’s announcement on Scarborough Reef posed acute dilemmas for Manila and Washington .
The full extent of what happened next is yet to be revealed. However, the Philippines lodged a formal protest in Beijing and it appears likely that Washington also expressed strong views in private indicating that unless China changed course, the issue would sour Xi Jinping’s visit to Washington. In the face of this gathering storm, a Chinese government spokesman suddenly denied that Beijing had announced any plan to build facilities on Scarborough Shoal.
Many observers will assume that the crisis has been defused. Well, not quite. While Beijing was professing its innocence, Kyodo News in Taiwan revealed the views of officers of the Chinese South Seas Fleet reported in an internal PLA journal. These Chinese officers reportedly wrote that Beijing had secured the central leadership role in the South China Sea and other players couldn’t match its military supremacy in the region. The article argued that the PLA should brace for ‘endurance warfare’ to secure strategic advantages with patience and long-term planning. Over time, the balance of power had tilted toward China.
What should Washington and other allied capitals make of these developments? All indications are that Beijing’s goals in the South China Sea are unchanged but, as a tactical ploy, it wishes to avoid any immediate escalation of tensions. Renewed Chinese action on Scarborough Reef can be anticipated.
The White House appears to have three main options.
First, Trump could adopt a minimalist approach. He could restate the Obama administration’s interest in seeing all regional disputes resolved peacefully and in accordance with international law and turn a blind eye to the Philippines’ plight.
Even though many senior Americans are frustrated by the dysfunctionality and corruption in Manila, this option seems unlikely. Walking away from the Philippines would do enormous damage to alliance credibility globally and would run counter to the known strategic stances of key administration officials.
Second, Trump could adopt a holding position, whilst simultaneously seeking to protect Philippine sovereignty and alliance credibility. He could, for instance, convey his concern about Chinese plans to Xi Jinping. US aircraft and ships might also conduct patrols in the area in a manner similar to those ordered by President Obama early last year.
To add further weight to this option, the President could state explicitly that Washington’s treaty with the Philippines covers Scarborough Shoal and that US forces will work with the Philippines Armed Forces to maintain security for all Philippines sovereign territory. This second option would be unlikely to threaten Chinese cooperation in other spheres where Washington needs Beijing’s support, such as in restraining North Korea’s nuclear missile programs.
A third option would be for Washington to conclude that it has little choice but to respond to Beijing’s sustained expansionism and competitive behavior by developing a competitive strategy of its own. This would likely be a long-term approach that would include a range of diplomatic, information, economic, geo-strategic, immigration, legal, military and other measures. They would be tailored over time to constrain Beijing’s assertiveness, encourage responsible international behavior, and protect the core interests of the US and its allies.
Beijing’s actions are forcing the Trump administration to make tough choices. There is a great deal at stake for everyone in the Western Pacific.