Scarborough Shoal (also known as Bajo de Masinloc, Panatag, Panacot), Benham Rise (now Philippine Rise) and the Celebes Sea have been making the news in the past week or so.
About two weeks ago, the USS Hopper, an American destroyer grazed past Scarborough Shoal, once a gunnery range for US and Philippine naval forces when America still had its bases in the country, until the 1987 Constitution banned foreign troops based on sovereign soil. This got China hopping mad, accusing the United States of violating its “sovereignty.” Naturally, Filipino patriots gave the spurious claimant the finger.
Scarborough is well within our EEZ. We claim it as part of our regime of islands with a history of actual use without a challenge until China began claiming almost all of the South China Sea (SCS) as part of its territory. It claimed “indisputable sovereignty” based on its fictitious 9-dash line (originally 11-dashes, then down to 9-dashes, now 10-dashes) that the Arbitral Tribunal in The Hague trashed in 2016.
When it forcibly occupied Scarborough in April 2012 after a Philippine Navy was deputized to apprehend Chinese poachers in the Shoal, in the absence of a Coast Guard vessel in the area at the time, we rushed Coast Guard vessels to confront them. The tense situation prompted the US to broker a deal where both sides would withdraw simultaneously from Scarborough. To make a long story short, we did, China didn’t, and the US was nowhere to be heard after that.
Despite the thawing of relations and the return of Filipino fishermen to Scarborough, China continues to occupy the area and control entry into the Shoal. It’s widely suspected that it will build a forward operating base within Scarborough in rapid fashion like what they did in Subi, Fiery Cross, and five other artificial islands in the Kalayaan island group (KIG). Once that fait accompli is done, it would have total de facto control of the SCS including the EEZs of 5 ASEAN countries.
Last week, Benham Rise hit the headlines when the Chinese said that the Philippines doesn’t have sovereignty over it. Benham, or Philippine Rise, is part of our EEZ and exploitation of its resources is exclusively ours. Allowing joint exploration with Philippine counterparts and sharing its bounty, be it data or minerals, is strictly our sovereign decision to make. No one has to remind us about our exclusive entitlements in our EEZ, much less the one violating it.
The frenzy over that statement brought to mind China’s armed occupation of the SCS and its obvious imperial agenda to dominate the Indo-Pacific theater before conquering the world in due time; after all, China’s a very patient strategist and a master of timing. Its submarines are for certain exploring the depths of Benham to familiarize themselves with critical pathways and hiding places in preparation for future conflict, citing innocent passage to mask their intentions. What else could it be for? And if they control the depths, they will control the surface long before we know it.
A few days ago, social media resurrected a news report about China being invited early last year to help out address piracy in the Sulu Sea and Celebes Sea. I guess it was meant to return the spotlight to an issue that may have been forgotten.
By mid-2017, just after Marawi’s occupation by the Daesh, the Philippines, Indonesia, and Malaysia began their joint operations to deter and defeat lawlessness and terrorism in that area. Singapore, which had been sharing its intelligence date base, was invited to join.
How are the joint patrols coming along? What’s the status of their “jointness?” Do they have a joint headquarters? Are they meeting the objectives? Are there enough redundant ground, sea and air assets, including unmanned aircraft, to cover suspected camps, trails and staging areas 24/7? Why is China needed to help out? What value does it bring in addressing our joint security concerns given its aggressive behavior in the SCS? That’s like jumping from the frying pan to the fire.
The Sulu and Celebes Seas are strategic sea lines of communication. Scarborough is a vital sea line of communication within our EEZ. Benham Rise is a crucial sea line of communication as well. If we have China freely gallivanting in all these areas, we’d be totally surrounded. Have we asked ourselves what the long-term consequences would be to the Philippines, to ASEAN and to the entire Indo-Pacific region should that come to pass?
China’s island fortifications in the SCS are vital components of its imperial agenda. Apart from Woody Island in the Paracels, China has built significant point-defense capabilities — anti-aircraft guns and close-in weapons systems (CIWS) — at each of its outposts in the Spratlys: Fiery Cross, Mischief, Subi, Gaven, Hughes, Johnson, and Cuarteron Reefs. China won’t spend big money building and prepositioning war assets like fighters, bombers and long-range missiles if it doesn’t have a plan to suit its “Kingdom under Heaven.”
Unfettered access in Scarborough, Benham, and Celebes would transform the Philippines into China’s giant fulcrum to deny the US the ability to secure the Pacific Ocean, SCS and Indian Ocean. As Deng Xiao Ping once said: “There can’t be two tigers on the same hill.” The Philippines seems to be that hill which is strategic real estate. No less than US President Donald Trump said so when he visited the country late last year. I’m pretty certain he wasn’t referring to the Trump Tower in Makati City.
Sooner or later there will be a clash in the SCS between the US and China whether anyone likes it or not. Both powers have opposing national interests and we will be at their crosshairs, each one wanting us to side with them. The question to ask ourselves now is: What would be best in OUR national interest? My reply to that is: Build credible deterrence with deliberate speed. It is our constitutional duty to defend ourselves. We cannot, and must not, abdicate that responsibility and the right to remain free.
Rafael M. Alunan III served in the Cabinet of President Corazon C. Aquino as Secretary of Tourism, and in the Cabinet of President Fidel V. Ramos as Secretary of Interior and Local Government.