War planners in Washington and Manila are increasingly concerned that Beijing is planning to reclaim and potentially garrison troops on Scarborough Shoal, a lonely atoll that China seized from the Philippines in 2012.
So far, there is no physical evidence that dredging is actually under way, but Adm. John Richardson, America’s chief of naval operations, recently told reporters that he is seeing unusual increased ship activity near the Shoal including some survey ships.
The United States and other nations in Asia were caught flat-footed two years ago when Beijing transformed barely visible reefs into artificial islands, some of them with runways long enough to support high performance fighter aircraft, before anybody seemed to notice.
Scarborough Shoal is neither in the Paracel Islands to the northwest or the Spratly island group to the south. China claims both against conflicting claims by other Southeast Asian nations including the Philippines.
The atoll sits more or less by itself only about 125 miles from the coast of Luzon. It forms the third point in a kind of triangle of Chinese bases and future bases that would cover virtually the entire South China Sea.
There are good reasons why Beijing might want to build up and ultimately militarize Scarborough Shoal. It would provide China with a base relatively close to the Luzon Strait separating the Philippines. It is a pathway for Chinese naval assets into the wider Pacific Ocean.
The nearby waters are within the Philippines’ 200-nautical mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) and were, until China intervened, a well worked fishing ground. It was Manila’s effort to arrest Chinese fishing vessels near the shoal that led to the 2012 confrontation and de facto annexation.
Though no shots were fired, China used the now-familiar combination of fishing boats, Coast Guard vessels and ships of the regular navy to coerce the Philippines into departing the shoal.
Scarborough Shoal is also within the boundary of the “nine-dash line” which is interpreted as being a Chinese claim to virtually the entire South China Sea. It is this assertion that Manila challenged in the case it brought before the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague.
It is doubtful that China could succeed in turning the shoal into an artificial island before the court issues its verdict, expected possibly as early as June. But continuing work reclamation work on the shoal would be a way for Beijing to show its contempt for the ruling.
Beijing’s reaction to the Philippine court initiative was to proclaim three “nos:” no to acceptance of the filing, no to participation in the proceedings and no to implementation of the findings.
If the Chinese do begin to enlarge the shoal through dredging, if would be the first time they did his to an island they did not already occupy, if only in a small way.
Meanwhile, Washington is reassessing its approach to China’s island-grabbing. On two occasions, it sent destroyers within 12 territorial miles of China’s expanded islands on “Freedom of Navigation” (FON) missions.
The problem is that these voyages could interpreted as rights of “innocent passage” since they didn’t do anything that might look aggressive. Thus they made no statement on the legality of the artificial Chinese islands.
Adm. Harry Harris, commander of America’s Pacific Command, is said to be urging a new series of missions, but this time allowing the ships to fire their guns (at artificial targets), launch missiles or helicopters or do other things that can only be done on the high seas.
Harris has been probably the most prominent senior American advocate in opposition to China’s reclamation efforts ever since he denounced what he colorfully called a “Great Wall of Sand” in a speech that first brought wide-spread notice of China’s activities.
In testimony before the US Senate, the admiral did not mince words. “You have to believe in a flat earth to think that China is not militarizing the islands,” he said. The complex of fighter bases “gives China de facto control of the South China Sea in any scenario short of war.”
US Navy Captain Sean Liedman, a Fellow with the Council on Foreign Relations, argued recently that if China begins to transform Scarborough Shoal into a military base, the US should find ways to disable the dredges.
The administration is divided over the proper and most effective response. Washington has other fish to fry with China besides the South China Sea, including seeking Beijing’s help in getting North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons program.
Manila has been drawing closer to the United States and Japan, not to mention other countries in Southeast Asia with similar territorial disputes. A small flotilla of Japanese warships, including for the first time in 15 years a submarine, recently docked at Subic Bay.
Tokyo has also sent observers this year to the annual US-Philippine Balikatan military exercises and has agreed to lease patrol aircraft to the Philippine Air Force to strengthen its surveillance over the South China Sea (or West Philippine Sea, as Filipinos say).
Manila was the only Southeast Asian country that publically applauded Tokyo for passage of security laws last year and for re-interpreting its pacifistic constitution to permit collective defense. It has also offered Japan basing rights, similar to those offered the US.
Later this month US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter plans to visit Manila to formally conclude negotiations for Manila that will allow the US rights to use five bases in the Philippines. Little doubt that the Scarborough Shoal issue will also be on the agenda.
Todd Crowell is the author of The Coming War Between China and Japan published as an Amazon Single Kindle.He is a regular contributor to Asia Sentinel