By Camille A. Aguinaldo
A TOP United States military official has raised concerns over China’s ongoing militarization in the South China Sea, saying China may challenge US presence in the region once it deploys its forces in its bases in the disputed waters.
Meanwhile, on Wednesday, Malacañang maintained it will not file a protest against the People’s Republic of China over its alleged destruction of coral reefs on Scarborough Shoal, also locally named Bajo de Masinloc, saying this will only “reverse” the Philippines’ “diplomatic gains.”
In a report to the US Congress by the Congressional Research Service made public on Tuesday, US Navy Admiral Philip S. Davidson was also quoted as saying that Chinese forces may “easily overwhelm the military forces of any South China Sea-claimants.”
“Today, these forward operating bases (in South China Sea) appear complete. The only thing lacking are the deployed forces. Once occupied, China will be able to extend its influence thousands of miles to the south and project power deep into Oceania,” he said at a hearing by the US Senate Armed Services Committee last April.
He added: “The PLA (People’s Liberation Army) will be able to use these bases to challenge U.S. presence in the region, and any forces of any other South China Sea-claimants. In short, China is now capable of controlling the South China Sea in all scenarios short of war with the United States….”
Mr. Davidson was recently installed commander of the US Indo-Pacific Command which oversees US military operations in Asia.
The report is titled “Maritime Territorial and Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) Disputes Involving China: Issues for Congress,” which was dated May 24 and made public on Tuesday, June 12.
The report also acknowledged that “Chinese domination” in the South China Sea may affect “US strategic, political, and economic interests in the Asia-Pacific region.”
Aside from the territorial disputes in the South China Sea, the report also raised China’s dispute with the United States over whether the former has a right under international law to regulate activities of foreign military forces operating within China’s exclusive economic zone.
“The dispute appears to be at the heart of incidents between Chinese and U.S. ships and aircraft in international waters and airspace in 2001, 2002, 2009, 2013, and 2014,” it stated.
“In particular, Chinese domination over or control of its near-seas area could greatly complicate the ability of the United States to intervene militarily in a crisis or conflict between China and Taiwan. It could also complicate the ability of the United States to fulfill its obligations under its defense treaties with Japan, South Korea, and the Philippines,” the report said.
Security agreements between the Philippines and the US include the Mutual Defense Treaty and the Visiting Forces Agreement.
“Developments such as these could in turn encourage countries in the region to reexamine their own defense programs and foreign policies, potentially leading to a further change in the region’s security structure,” the report added.
It cited observers’ views that China could be using the disputes to raise doubts among US allies in the region about the dependability of the US as a partner or to weaken US relations with Asian countries. This may result in greater Chinese influence over the region.
The report also described China’s approach to assert its claims in the South China Sea as “salami-slicing strategy in order to “gradually change the status quo in China’s favor.”
The strategy, the report stated, employs “a series of incremental actions, none of which by itself is a casus belli,” or an event or action that justifies a declaration of war.
The report also cited a Chinese official using the term “cabbage strategy” to assert control in the South China Sea “by wrapping those islands, like leaves of a cabbage, in successive layers of occupation and protection” by using Chinese ships.
The US report asserted that the country should not take any position on competing claims to sovereignty over disputed land features in South China Sea.
But it also maintained that territorial disputes should be “resolved peacefully, without coercion, intimidation, threats, or the use of force, and in a manner consistent with international law.”
Presidential Spokesperson Harry L. Roque, Jr. in a statement on Wednesday afternoon said: “Filing a new case against China will reverse our diplomatic gains, not to mention the cost it entails. We can therefore discuss the issue of destroyed coral reefs in Scarborough Shoal as this forms part of the area of maritime environmental protection instead of filing a new case.”
“We are a witness to how our friendly consultation and negotiation with China yielded positive results. At present, we have an existing bilateral consultation mechanism (BCM) with China, which has resulted in productive exchange of views on how to boost cooperation on areas which include maritime environmental protection,” he added.
The foreign affairs ministries of both China and the Philippines established the BCM in January 2017 as a platform for confidence-building measures and for promoting maritime cooperation and maritime security between the two states. The BCM meets alternately in the Philippines and China once every six months, according to the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA).
The Philippine government, Mr. Roque also said, has had “continuous discussions on environmental issues” with China. “Both countries are committed to protecting and preserving the environment and to deal strictly with those who do not abide by relevant regulations,” he said.
On Tuesday, Acting Chief Justice Antonio T. Carpio urged the government to file a protest against China. “The arbitral tribunal already ruled on 12 July 2016 that China violated its obligations to protect and preserve the marine environment when China did not prevent Chinese fishermen from harvesting giant clams and destroying the coral reefs in the process,” he said in a statement.
Mr. Carpio said the Philippines “was not awarded damages because it did not ask for damages.”
“This time the Philippines should demand damages for the economic losses of Filipino fishermen. We can also ask damages for the action of China in preventing our fishermen from fishing inside the lagoon of Scarborough Shoal in violation of the (12) July 2016 arbitral ruling,” he explained.
As for the alleged harassment by Chinese coast guard personnel who took the catch of Filipino fishermen in the Scarborough Shoal, Mr. Roque also said last Monday that there is no need for the Philippines to file another diplomatic protest. He said it is “enough to convey” the concern to China. — with a report by Arjay L. Balinbin
By Camille A. Aguinaldo