THE CONTINUED STANDOFF IN THE SOUTH CHINA SEA
PHILIPPINES HUNG OUT TO DRY?
Communist China’s announcement that it is constructing a garrison around a new “city” named Sansha, in the Paracel Islands has lead to a number of questions, most notably about American commitment to the Philippines.
“The U.S. is bound to protect the Philippines under the terms of a 1951 treaty. Yet even as our ally was being bullied by China, the Obama administration adopted a pose of studied neutrality,” Max Boot wrote in an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal. “The Obama administration did not orchestrate an international campaign to rally support for the Philippines. And it failed to take the most dramatic step of all by not sending an American destroyer or other warship to Scarborough Shoal.”
The result: China may be seizing oil and gas that, according to international law, is in Philippine and Vietnamese waters. And it seems that nobody is willing to do anything about it.
The Association of South-East Asian Nations, a coalition of ten countries – Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei, Laos, Cambodia, Burma, Thailand, the Philippines, Brunei, and Singapore – has been divided on how to handle the growing dispute. Part of this is due to the fact that Malaysia, the Philippines, Brunei, and Vietnam all have claims to some of the disputed maritime territory.
Partially due to that, and partially due to the fact that the ChiComs have won a couple of clashes with the Vietnamese (including a 1988 naval battle in which two armed transports were sunk, and a landing ship badly damaged), ASEAN just has not come together – and the annual summit in Cambodia this past July ended without any agreement among its members, after it had bene brought up for the third consecutive year.
"Our member states will have to survey the landscape and the terrain and the waters very carefully, what could be an issue of controversy, so that we will be able to either avoid them or minimize the impact," ASEAN Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan told VOA News.
“There are certain countries, obviously Cambodia, and other countries in the region and in ASEAN, that have been more or less willing, for a variety of different reasons, to be supportive of China in this context,” CATO Institute foreign policy scholar Justin Logan told VOA News.
CHICOM GARRISON UPS THE TENSION
The ChiCom garrison being headquartered in Sansha is only adding to the tension that began when Benigno Aquino III took office as President of the Philippines. While his predecessor had been conciliatory towards the ChiComs, Aquino was more willing to draw a hard line to protect Philippine interests.
According to a report by the International Crisis Group, “China sees the Aquino government’s stronger stance as provocative and has responded by increasing its presence in disputed areas.”
More worrisome for the ChiComs was a perception that, according to an e-mail received by the International Crisis Group, “The former government could be bought; the current government cannot. The Chinese are likely playing a waiting game, hoping that the government will eventually be out of power and a new government will enable them to return to their tried and true tactics.”
However, the Philippines were instead reaching out to the United States after having asked American forces to leave in 1991, and had acquired two former Hamilton-class high-endurance cutters to strengthen its navy. As a result, the ChiComs found themselves facing not only a country determined to stand up for itself, but one that was looking to reduce the disparity in naval forces.
PROVOCATIONS USING CIVILIAN VESSELS
Since the start of May, Communist China has sent over twenty ships, including two patrol vessels, into the disputed waters. According to reports in the Singapore Straits Times, the China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC) offered leases in the disputed region in July.
“It seems to confirm the suspicion that although China is only claiming ‘sovereignty’ over the islands and their adjacent waters, it is also claiming ‘rights and jurisdiction’ to the resources in and under the waters within the nine-dashed lines. If so, this puts China on a legal collision course with the Asean claimants,” Professor Robert Beckman of the University of Singapore told the Straits Times.
In an April report, the International Crisis Group noted that the Chinese had been using civilian vessels in these incidents. However, the specter of the People’s Liberation Army remains.
“To safeguard our sovereign and territorial rights, we will never hesitate to face up to any military challenge,” Major General Luo Yuan wrote in April.
WHAT TO DO?
He Jianbin, who runs the Baosha Fishing Corporation, has made public comments urging further action, saying to the Global times, run by the Chinese Communist party, “If we put 5,000 Chinese fishing boats in the South China Sea, there will be 100,000 fishermen.”
He went on to urge that they be armed and declared militiamen, which would supposedly outclass the other militaries that may be involved in the disputes around that region. Calls for more naval strength in China have also emerged.
“Given the threat of long range attack from potential adversaries, China should extend its range of defense further. Only by doing so can it realize its objective of inshore defense and protect its territory. That’s why an inshore defense strategy also needs assorted vessels, large and small, as backup,” Captain Wang Xiaoxuan wrote in China Daily.
WHERE IS AMERICA?
Meanwhile, America seems to be sitting on the sidelines as the tension mounts. Most of the “actions” taken amount to posturing from the State Department. But protests from the cookie pushers will not make Jianghu-class frigates depart a disputed region. Superior naval force will make a Jianghu-class frigate go away – one way or another.
The United States signed a Mutual Defense Treaty with the Philippines in 1951. While the Philippines requested that American forces depart in 1991, that treaty has remained in force. The United States needs not only a naval buildup, but it also needs to honor that treaty – lest America be seen as a country that abandons its allies.
Article by Harold Hutchison