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Will China occupy Scarborough Shoal?

The New York Times recently had an article with the following report: “ At the Pentagon two weeks ago, the day before a meeting of Mr. Obama’s national security team to discuss Chinese expansion in the Pacific, General Joseph F. Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was talking with Adm. Harry B. Harris, the commander of the United States Pacific Command, in the reception area of Defense Secretary Ashton Carter’s office.

“Would you go to war over Scarborough Shoals? “ General Dunford asked Admiral Harris, in a conversation overheard by a reporter. If Admiral Harris responded, it could not be heard.”

The question now is whether China is planning to build a military base in the Scarborough Shoals similar to its bases in the Spratly  Islands. Admiral Harris, head of the US Pacific command has said that China’s “complex of missile sites, fighter jets and surveillance stations based on newly constructed artificial islands will give China de facto control of the South China Sea in any scenario of war.”

According to Bonnie Glaser of the Center for Strategic and International Studies: “A base at Scarborough would have enormous significance for China, especially in combination with the other facilities they have built on Mischief Reef and Fiery Cross. The Chinese will be able to extend control over larger swaths of air space and water.” Glasser believes that the Chinese “intend to dredge at the Shoal and build another base.”

Scarborough Shoal

The Scarborough Shoal, also known as the Panatag Shoal and Bajo de Masinloc, is a triangle shaped chain of reefs and rocks located about 123 miles or 198 kilometers west of Subic Bay. The nearest landmass is the province of Zambales on the island of Luzon. Based on international law, the shoal is within the 200 mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of the Philippines. Several official Philippine maps published by Spain and the United States in the 18th and 20th centuries show the Scarborough Shoal as Philippine territory.

The dispute with China started in 2012 when a Filipino inspection team discovered Chinese fishing vessels that had illegally collected corals, giant clams and sharks. A Philippine naval vessel that attempted to board the Chinese fishing vessel was blocked by Chinese maritime ships.

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Under a 2012 deal mediated by the United States, China and the Philippines promised to withdraw their forces from the Scarborough Shoal until an agreement over its ownership could be reached. The Philippines complied with the agreement and withdrew its forces. China, however, did not abide by the agreement and maintained its presence, including its naval ships, at the shoal.

Occupying Scarborough Shoal

Admiral John Richardson, the US Navy’s chief of operations, noted that there is increased Chinese “surface ship activity” near Scarborough Shoal. He adds that there is additionally some “survey type of activity” in the area noting that that it was “an area of concern...a next possible  area of reclamation.”

Occupying and militarizing the Scarborough Shoal would be considered a very provocative act by China. However, it has been reported that Chinese leaders might reason that they have already taken so much aggressive action in the South China Sea without any meaningful response from the United States and ASEAN countries. Therefore, one additional provocation will not really cause any aggressive reaction from other countries. As they have done in other areas, China will probably begin with a small troop presence and wait until an appropriate time to build a base.

Sun Tzu, the famous Chinese military strategist, once wrote: “ Supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy’s resistance without fighting.” In chess, the prelude to checkmating the opponent and winning the game is to first gain “positional advantage.” The goal is to place the opponent in such a disadvantageous position that he believes it is useless to resist. The enemy will, therefore, surrender without even fighting.

China has already won the war in the Spratly Islands and is on the way to winning the Paracel Islands without any meaningful resistance.  The next battleground appears to be the Scarborough Shoal.

Escalating tensions

President Aquino has rightfully declared that war is futile. But there is clear evidence that tension in the South China Sea is escalating. Taiwan has just elected a pro-independence government. The Philippines has allowed the United States the use of five Philippine bases. Singapore has allowed American planes to be based in their country.

Last week, Malaysia accused a large number of Chinese fishing trawlers of entering its waters. The worrisome thing was that the fishing vessels were accompanied by a Chinese coast guard vessel. An Indonesian patrol boat was trying to detain a Chinese fishing boat illegally operating in its waters. As they towed it to shore the Indonesian vessel was rammed by a Chinese coast guard vessel.

China obviously wants to make their control of the entire China Sea as the “new normal.” Most people have assumed that there will be no war because China will always back down rather than risk a clash. But so far, it is the United States, Japan and the ASEAN that have backed down in the face of China’s territorial aggression. So again, the question is – are we willing to go to war or will China take over the entire South China Sea without any resistance? The alternative to resistance is a Chinese base only 123 miles from Luzon inside the Philippine Exclusive Economic Zone – a complete surrender of Philippine sovereignty.

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