by Rodel Rodis
June 16, 2013
While the Philippines was preoccupied with the controversy over the killing of a Taiwanese fisherman by the Philippine Coast Guard on May 9, little attention was paid to the ominous arrival on May 8 of three Chinese naval ships at the Ayungin Reef (Second Thomas Shoal) – the gateway to the oil and mineral rich Reed Bank – just 105 nautical miles from Palawan Island, within the 200 mile exclusive economic zone of the Philippines.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei confirmed the arrival in Rena’i Reef (Ayungin Reef) of the Chinese government vessels – two marine surveillance ships and one naval frigate. But Hong asserted that the reef is part of the Nansha Islands (Spratly Islands) over which, Hong claims, China has “indisputable sovereignty.” Hong added: “It is beyond reproach for Chinese boats to carry out patrols in these waters” even though it is more than 600 miles from the nearest Chinese port.
The Ayungin Reef is presently guarded by a small contingent of about a dozen Philippine marines stationed at the BRP Sierra Madre, a WW II era vessel that was intentionally sunk on the northwest side of the shoal in 1999 to serve as the Philippine marine base. The marines, who are rotated on a regular basis, are equipped with firearms and battery powered radios as well as a small generator to cook their food, which is regularly replenished by Philippine Navy boats.
The Chinese naval ships are threatening to impose a blockade to prevent the Philippine marines stationed at Ayungin Reef from receiving fresh supplies. But Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin declared that he will not be intimidated by China and will not pull out his marines from the area. “We will fight for what is ours up to the last soldier standing,” he vowed.
President Benigno S. Aquino III backed his defense chief in his speech at an official ceremony marking the Philippine Navy’s 115th anniversary. “We have a clear message to the world,” he said:” The Philippines is for Filipinos, and we have the capability to resist bullies entering our backyard.”
But Chinese bullies have successfully entered the “backyard” of the Philippines before.
In 1994, while the Philippine Navy was not patrolling the area because of the monsoon season, Chinese ships occupied the Mischief Reef, which is just 130 nautical miles from Palawan Island. When the Philippines protested the occupation, China smiled and explained that it was just building temporary shelters to protect its fishermen from the monsoon rains. In 1999, the Philippine government protested the fact that the structures the Chinese built on the reef resembled a military installation more than a shelter for fishermen. China simply ignored the protest. The Philippines decided not to destroy the military fortifications on the Mischief Reef for fear that it would escalate the conflict into a war.
In April of 2012, a Philippine Navy frigate, the BRP Gregorio Del Pilar, boarded Chinese fishing boats that had trespassed on the Panatag Shoal (Scarborough Shoal) which is located 125 nautical miles from Zambales and more than 550 miles from the nearest Chinese port. After discovering that the fishermen had illegally harvested corals, giant clams and live sharks that were endangered species, the Philippine Navy men detained the Chinese fishermen. But they were blocked by Chinese maritime surveillance ships which freed the Chinese fishermen and their illegal cargo.
At one point in the standoff, the Philippine Navy had two ships facing off against an armada of 90 Chinese vessels which pro-China Senator Antonio Trillanes claims he succeeded in getting China to reduce by half.
The tense standoff continued until June of 2012 when the US brokered an agreement for Philippine and Chinese ships to leave the Scarborough Shoal. Unfortunately, only the Philippines complied with the agreement. China later claimed that it never signed any written agreement to leave the Scarborough Shoal, or what China calls the “Huangyan Island”.
Instead of engaging in the usual “smile diplomacy” to consolidate its illegal occupation of the Scarborough Shoal, this time China doubled down on its aggressive posture. In July of 2012, China announced that it had created the Sansha City prefecture, complete with its own PLA military garrison, vested with jurisdiction over the entire South China Sea including all of the Spratly Islands. China’s Communist government claims ownership based on a map of the South China Sea etched out by 11 dotted lines by Chiang Kai-Shek’s Kuomintang government in 1947. This was later reduced to 9 by the Chinese Communists after seizing control of China in 1949. This simple hand-drawn map with a few dotted lines on it forms the “historical” basis of the “9 dash line” map delineating China’s claim to ownership of 3 million square kilometers of the South China Sea.
In an article which appeared in the Foreign Policy magazine on August 3, 2012, Robert Haddick describes the bind that China has placed the US in because the global and U.S. economies depend on freedom of navigation through the South China Sea where $5.3 trillion of global trade passes through, $1.2 trillion of which go on to pass through U.S. ports.
Haddick describes China’s strategy as “salami slicing”. “A salami-slicer puts the burden of disruptive action on his adversary. That adversary will be in the uncomfortable position of drawing seemingly unjustifiable red lines and engaging in indefensible brinkmanship. For China, that would mean simply ignoring America’s Pacific fleet and carrying on with its slicing, under the reasonable assumption that it will be unthinkable for the United States to threaten major-power war over a trivial incident in a distant sea,” Haddick writes.
Haddick explains: “If sliced thinly enough, no one action will be dramatic enough to justify starting a war. How will a policymaker in Washington justify (a war caused by) a Chinese frigate chasing off a Philippines survey ship over Reed Bank, or a Chinese infantry platoon appearing on a pile of rocks near the Spratly Islands? When contemplating a grievously costly war with a major power, such minor events will appear ridiculous as casus belli. Yet when accumulated over time and space, they could add up to a fundamental change in the region.”
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