Standing Room Only?

Standing Room Only?

September 20, 2014

What do you do when all seats are taken?

The Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan and Malaysia control real islands in the South China Sea. “China came very late to this party and missed out on all the good real estate,” wrote  British  Broadcasting Corporation’s Rupert Wingfield-Hayes in “China’s Island Factory.” So, it is creating, through reclamation, new islands.

Wingfield-Hayes, who joined BBC in 1999, worked in Beijing from 2000 to 2006. He served as Moscow correspondent until 2010 and was named Middle East correspondent.

Beijing today seeks “to dominate sea-space within the first island chain,” Wingfield-Hayes writes. It runs from Borneo’s coast, past Taiwan, to southern Japan. It is, in Beijing’s opinion, China’s backyard.

“But in the longer term, China wants to move beyond the Philippines and southern Japan to the ‘second island chain.’ That stretches from Palau, Guam and Northern Mariana Islands…. This will be a seismic shift in the Western Pacific’s balance of power.”

For the past 70 years, US power has been unassailable there. “Now, for the first time, a new power is emerging with the will and means to challenge America’s military dominance. It is unlikely to be a smooth ride.”

Recent Philippine Navy photos document land reclamation work China did since January. It is building new islands on five different reefs. They are creating “new facts on the ground.”

Beijing’s belated “nine-dash line” map sweeps in a tongue-shaped expanse up to the coasts of the Philippines, Vietnam, even Borneo. For decades, China did little to enforce its vague and sweeping claim. Now, the Communist Party reclassified South China Sea as a “core national interest.” That lumps it with Taiwan and Tibet and “means China is prepared to fight to defend it.”

Manila lacks military muscle. So, the Philippines brought its case to the United Nations, seeking a ruling based on the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos). Unclos usually accords coastal states an exclusive economic zone up to 200 nautical miles from their coastline. An Unclos ruling would be good for the Philippines. Beijing made it clear it will not be bound by any ruling.

This is not just a quarrel with the Philippines and other countries bordering the sea, its resources or even strategic space, let alone sovereignty, Wingfield-Hayes notes. Instead, it is about China’s real strategic rival: the United States.

Washington does not acknowledge China’s claim. And the US Pacific fleet sails regularly through these waters. Almost a third of global crude oil and over half of global liquefied gas pass yearly from African and Persian Gulf suppliers, through the South China Sea, to Asian consumers.

The “Monroe Doctrine” of 1823 identified the Western hemisphere as America’s backyard, notably the Caribbean Sea. Old European colonial powers were told to keep out. “Today, China is doing something very similar in the East and South China seas.”

Thursday, Manila displayed ancient maps which document China’s claims. From the Song Dynasty in year 960 until end of the Qing Dynasty in 1912, “China’s southernmost territory was always Hainan island, just off the Chinese coast.” All five constitutions of China make that point. None include, for instance, Scarborough Shoal, which China seized in June 2012.

Supreme Court Justice Antonio Carpio, who did the most extensive research on this territorial dispute, notes: The facts “can restrain extreme nationalism … or give hope to a just and durable settlement of disputes.”

Indeed, these waters are dotted “with strange little military outposts and civilian colonies,” Wingfield-Hayes notes. It’s hard to decipher which is which and who controls who.  Pagasa was called Thitu Island; in Chinese it is Zhongye Dao, and Dao Thi Tu in Vietnamese.

Johnson South Reef is dubbed Chi Gua, Yongshu, Gac Ma to Mabini Reef. And so it goes for dozens of other islets, even sandbars. The Philippines has nine outposts, Vietnam eight, and Malaysia seven—like China, at last tally. Taiwan has a sprawling air base in the biggest island in the Spratlys.

Ayungin Reef is 120 nautical miles from the coast of the Philippines. That puts it well within the Philippines’ claimed 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone. It is more than 800 nautical miles from the Chinese coast. “And yet Beijing claims that this submerged reef is an integral part of Chinese territory.”

Pagasa is halfway between Palawan and Vietnam. An eccentric Filipino businessman landed there in 1956 and declared it “Freedomland.” Arrested and forced to hand over his country by Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos, Tomas Cloma was paid a token one peso.

Marcos built concrete bunkers along the shoreline plus antiaircraft gun emplacements. Only the airstrip remains usable. There are 30 Philippine Marines based on Pagasa. They won’t be able to stop the People’s Liberation Army, if it decides to clear them out.

Pagasa’s most important asset lies at the far end of the island—a ramshackle village with about 30 families. Civilians started coming in the late 1970s and gradually built a little colony there. “We get a free house, a job and free food,” one said. “And there is a school for our children.”

Like Manila, Hanoi is settling civilians on several of the islets it controls. Civilian colonies certainly make military confrontation more difficult and less appetizing.

“Shooting soldiers, as China did at Johnson South in 1988, is one thing. Shooting women and children is quite another. Whether these heavily subsidized microcolonies really strengthen legal claims to places like Pagasa has yet to be tested,” Wingfield-Hayes writes. “Clearly, Manila and Hanoi believe they do.”/Juan L. Mercado


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