Recently, China confirmed that construction work is ongoing at the Mabini Reef (Johnson South Reef) in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea). However, she declined to say what she’s constructing. She told the Philippines that it’s none of her business because the area is “Chinese territory.”
It doesn’t matter that Mabini Reef is within the Philippines’ 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) and it doesn’t matter that Mabini Reef is within the Philippines’ continental shelf, both of which are covered by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). With more than 60 countries signing the treaty, including China and the Philippines, the UNCLOS took effect in 1982. Yet, China roguishly ignores the UNCLOS.
Today, China insists that an arbitrarily drawn nine-dash line, which bounds about 90% of the South China Sea, delineates what she claims as “undisputable sovereignty” and “core national interest,” a euphemism she uses to signify that an area of land or water is non-negotiable territory. With no coordinates to pinpoint the exact boundary of the nine-dash-line, the claimed area covers parts of her southern neighbors’ EEZ. These countries are Taiwan, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, Vietnam, and lately, Indonesia.
The reclamation of roughly five square kilometers of the subsurface area around the tiny Mabini Reef would require moving large volume of rock and soil from China, more than 600 miles away. It’s estimated that the reclamation and construction of the airbase would take 10 years to complete.
But China must have surmised that it’s worth the gargantuan effort because it would result in her establishing a strategic foothold — for the first time outside China — where her navy, air force, troops, ballistic missiles, and drones could reach Australia, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, and everybody else within 1,500 miles. With naval and air bases on Mabini Reef, China would come eyeball-to-eyeball with the Philippines… and, by extension, the U.S. It would, in effect, break the First Island Chain, America’s first line of defense against Chinese aggression, which runs from Japan through Taiwan, the Philippines, Borneo, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Vietnam. It also runs parallel to the nine-dash line.
If China took unchallenged possession of the South China Sea, she would be in a position to keep the Strait of Malacca open to Chinese maritime routes for oil from the Middle East and Africa, which comprises 80% her foreign oil imports.
Should the Strait of Malacca be closed, the Straits of Sunda and Lombok in Indonesia and the Timor Sea would provide China with alternate maritime routes. However, Australia, which is a key U.S. ally, could play a crucial role should war break out between the U.S. and China. Darwin, which is a forward operating base for American forces in Australia, could deny China’s use of these sea-lanes.
With the conversion of Oyster Bay in Palawan into a mini-Subic naval base for Philippine and U.S. naval forces, a Chinese military base on Mabini Reef could effectively close the Ulugan Bay where naval vessels from the inner Oyster Bay had to pass through to get into the West Philippine Sea. From a geostrategic standpoint, it would be a prized appendage for China, but it would be a pain in the groin for the U.S. and the Philippines.
Given U.S. President Barack Obama’s plan to rebalance 60% of America’s naval and air forces to the Indo-Asia-Pacific region, China’s military presence on Mabini Reef would enhance her Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2/AD) strategy, which was designed to counter the U.S.’s Air Sea Battle (ASB) plan.
The question is: What can the Philippines do to assert her sovereignty over Mabini Reef and other islands in the Spratly archipelago that China is fortifying with offensive military assets? The problem is that the Philippines doesn’t have the capability to stop China on her own. She relies on the U.S.’s presumed “ironclad” guarantee to come to her aid should hostility erupt over territorial disputes with China. There is no such “ironclad” guarantee.
The truth of the matter is the U.S. had repeatedly voiced out her neutrality on the territorial disputes in the South China Sea. The latest was last May 31 in Singapore when U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel reportedly warned Lt. Gen. Wang Guanzhong that “the U.S. will not look the other way when nations such as China try to restrict navigation or ignore international rules and standards.” However, he also parroted Obama’s cliché that the U.S. is neutral and doesn’t take any side on territorial disputes in the South China Sea. That means that the Philippines is on her own in defending her sovereignty and territorial integrity when it comes to any of the islands in the South China, which the U.S. had claimed as not being covered by the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT). The rationale for the exclusion was that the Spratly islands were not included as Philippine territory; hence, not covered by MDT.
And this brings to mind the question: Isn’t a “treaty ally” – as the U.S. refers to the Philippines — an ally in every sense of the word? Or is it just something that is applied for the U.S.’s convenience when her “core interests” are imperiled?
Evidently – unlike Japan — the Philippines is not one of America’s “core interests” after the Philippine Senate had unceremoniously evicted the U.S. bases in 1991. Since then the U.S. has configured her military defense structure in the Indo-Asia-Pacific region without any consideration for the Philippines as part of the defense arc circling China. In other words, the Philippines has zero geopolitical value to the U.S. She simply didn’t exist.
But now, after President Benigno Aquino III begged the U.S. to come back, he has to regain the U.S.’s unqualified support for the Philippines, not just a “treaty ally” but also a “true ally.”
At the end of the day, the Philippines has her work out rebuilding U.S.-Philippine alliance. It’s not going to happen overnight; but it will, slowly but surely.