Last year, former White House chief strategist, Steve Bannon, went on record with this statement: “The United States is certain to go to war versus China within the next 10 years.” The statement was said in reaction to China’s militarization of the West Philippine Sea and its relentless grab of territories belonging to other sovereign nations.
China justifies its unlawful actions by invoking a historic claim of the waters west of the Philippines. The claim, demarcated by what China calls a nine-dash line, is based on a historic map first published in 1947. In actuality, the nine-dash line is a vague, disjointed delineation which experts say was conjured without rhyme or reason. It encompasses practically the entire West Philippine sea including the Spratlys, Scarborough Shoal, and the Paracel islands.
Interestingly, China has never made an official claim for the territory before the International Tribunal for the Laws of the Sea (ITLOS), as most claimants must do. Instead, it simply grabbed the territories from the sovereign nations who have pending claims over parts of seas. The claimants include the Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei.
China is a signatory to the 1994 United Nation’s convention of the Laws of the Seas. As such, the emerging superpower, along with 120 nations, have agreed that waters and islands within 200 nautical miles from the shores of a particular nation forms part of its domain or Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). Areas not belonging to any nation’s EEZ is regarded as “International Waters” and as such, are governed by United Nations Maritime Laws.
The Scarborough Shoal is a mere 120 nautical miles away from Zambales while it is more than 500 nautical miles away from China. Yet, China claims it as part of its own EEZ in blatant defiance of the UN accord. The Philippines filed a protest before the United Nations Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague.
In 2016, the tribunal ruled in the Philippine’s favor saying that China’s nine-dash line is invalid. It further ruled that China has no legal claim over Philippine EEZ and that it had behaved unlawfully.
China has ignored the legal ruling of the Permanent Court.
In a statement, it said that it rejects arbitration and will continue to assert its historical claims over the territories even if it defies international laws. China’s actions are akin to a bully who grabs what it wants simply because it can.
The nine-dash line is a preposterous claim by any account. If it is to be given credence, then Italy can also claim the entire continent of Europe. But China has an “empire mentality” with expansionist ambitions. The West Philippine sea is crucial to its plan, both for expansion and intent to control international trade.
The militarization of the area is in its advanced stage.
In 2013, China began dredging the seafloor to build artificial islands on the disputed area. It destroyed 1.2 square kilometers of protected coral reefs in the process.
By 2015, a three-kilometer runway appeared on Fiery Cross Reefs. More runways are apparently being built in Subi and Mischief Reefs along with a berthing dock for large naval vessels. Military grade radars were erected in Cuarteron, Gaven, Johnson, and Hughes Reefs. This will enable China to monitor air and sea traffic in any point of the waters.
On Woody island, two battalions of missile fighter aircrafts were spotted. This is also where the fuel depot is located. The fuel farm is operated by Sinopec.
Despite satellite images showing proof positive that China is building naval and areal military bases, China still maintains that it is not constructing anything militaristic in nature.
Not satisfied with what it has already taken, China continues to annex more and more islets in the disputed area using what it calls the “Cabbage Strategy.” The strategy involves surrounding islands with as much ships as possible to seal it off from food, water, and other supplies. Sooner or later, inhabitants abandon the island leaving it free for China to take over.
In a worrying turn of events, China as recently (and conveniently) expanded its nine-dash line to a 10-dash line, now encompasses Taiwan. This has added to the tension in the region.
Why does China covet the West Philippine Sea?
The obvious reason is for its natural resources. Beneath the disputed area is an estimated 11 billion barrels of oil, 190 trillion feet of natural gas, and 10% of the world’s fishing resources.
The second reason is to further expand its territory using the “continuous annex strategy.” See, the more islands China claims as its own, the more it can invoke ITLOS laws to further annex another 200 kilometers of EEZ.
The third reason is insidious.
The West Philippine Sea is where one-third of world trade (valued at $5 trillion) passes through. It is the channel by which 2.2 billion consumers can be accessed. To control the West Philippine Sea is to control global trade.
Many speculate that once China has fully militarized the area, it will be in the position to require all ocean vessels and aircrafts to obtain prior clearance before it can be allowed passage. They may even charge a toll like they do in the Panama Canal. In short, freedom of passage will no longer be a free right in the West Philippine Sea. This will give China unprecedented control over the flow of goods and people in the most populous region in the world.
CONSEQUENCES AND TENSIONS
China’s actions will bring forth tremendous consequences to the United States and the global community.
For the US, the loss of its right to passage in the disputed area will weaken its economic, political, and military sway in the Pacific Rim. It is the last nail in the proverbial coffin that will make it cede its status as the world’s lone superpower.
As for the EU, Australia, and the rest of the Americas, their free access to the largest markets in the world will be subject to Chinese “approval” and control.
For countries like the Philippines, Taiwan, Vietnam and Brunei — not only do we stand to lose our rights to the resources of the West Philippine Sea, we also lose our right to free navigation within our own waters. Worse, we bear the risk of increased territory grabs by China, even in our mainland. In fact, a Chinese newspaper recently published a story saying that parts of Palawan, while inhabited by Filipinos, are inevitable targets for Chinese invasion.
All these have caused tensions to escalate. War is in the air and nations are preparing for it.
The Unites States is intensifying its patrol over the disputed seas using sea-lanes 12 nautical miles from anyone’s sovereign territory. This is known as “innocent passage.” Missile destroyers have been deployed and B1 Bombers are on standby in Australia. American military presence is meant to send a mitigating signal to China.
Joint military exercises between the US and Japan and the US and the Philippines are ongoing. Japan is said to have B22 fighter jets deployed in strategic bases in case the situation escalates.
Vietnam has prepared for the eventuality by acquiring six Russian-made submarines. Each submarine is armed with 50 missiles that can travel below the radar horizon. Singapore, Malaysia, and Indonesia are accelerating their respective arming programs as well.
For its part, India is closely monitoring the situation and has set-up several satellite observatories, a number of them are located in Vietnam.
China is testing how far it can go. It has recently threatened to declare an Air Identification Zone over the waters wherein all aircrafts flying over the airspace must first obtain Chinese permission. Clearly, its plan to control all movements within the West Philippine Sea is well in motion.
How is the Philippine government preparing for this? Government officials insists that there is a strategic reason why Malacañang plays footsies with China, why it soft-pedals on our sovereign claims and why it has allowed the Chinese to have their way over our shoals and islets.
I reckon government is trying to get as much concession as it can from China, considering our incapacity to fend them off, head to head.
On the other hand, it relies on the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty between the Philippines and the United States in case an all out invasion breaks out. We have also fortified our air force with Brazilian-made A29 fighter jets and Korean-made FA-50PH fighter jets to enable us to mount a credible defense.
As it stands, the Philippines is not prepared for war. I don’t think any of the other ASEAN nations are prepared for it either. I think we should all be doing more to arrest China’s diabolical intentions.
In the meantime, responsible heads of households and leaders of corporations must set-up their own contingencies to prepare for the worst-case scenario.
Andrew J. Masigan is an economist.