In the mid-1990s Beijing reassured Manila that structures it was building atop Mischief Reef, near the Philippines in the South China Sea, were merely fishermen’s shelters. Today China has a militarized island at that “shelter,” complete with a runway and large anti-aircraft guns.
A similar progression could begin this year at the currently undeveloped Scarborough Shoal, which China seized from the Philippines in 2012. For Beijing, an installation there would go a long way toward establishing effective control over the waterway, creating a strategic triangle in conjunction with other facilities it’s built in the sea in recent years.
On March 17 a Chinese official was quoted by a state-controlled paper as saying that preparatory work for environmental-monitoring stations would be built at several locations, including Huangyan Dao, the Chinese name for Scarborough Shoal. His comment was later deleted from the online version of the article. It was wasn’t clear if he misspoke or revealed something he shouldn’t have.
Asked yesterday (March 19) about the prospect of China building structures at the shoal, Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte gave the equivalent of a diplomatic shrug.
“We cannot stop China from doing this thing,” he told reporters. “So what do you want me to do… declare war against China? I can, but we’ll all lose our military and policemen tomorrow.”
But not everyone in the Philippines seems so resigned to China’s steady encroachment in the area, and some see other steps that can be taken in between the extremes of either declaring war or giving in to Beijing completely. Yesterday Antonio Carpio, a senior associate justice in the nation’s supreme court, said that such a statement from Duterte “actually encourages China to build on Scarborough Shoal.”
Carpio noted that under Philippine law the shoal is part of the nation’s territory, and suggested Duterte as president should avoid saying or doing anything that implies the Philippines is waiving sovereignty. He said the least Duterte could do is file a strong formal protest with Beijing against any Chinese building activity in the area.
He also said that the Philippine navy could send ships to patrol the shoal, noting that a Chinese attack on them could invoke the Philippines-US mutual defense treaty. Duterte could also request that the US declare the shoal Philippine territory under that treaty, much as it’s done repeatedly for Japan’s Senkaku islands, which China also claims as its own. Finally he said Duterte could accept the US offer to conduct joint patrols in the sea, including at the shoal.
Last year the Center for Strategic and International Studies warned that the South China Sea could become “virtually a Chinese lake” by 2030. With $1.2 trillion of US commerce passing through the waterway every year, the United States has a strong interest in preventing this scenario. Another concern in Washington is that Scarborough Shoal, being less than 150 miles (241 km) from the Philippine coast, is within easy striking distance of several facilities that host rotational US forces.
Last week US lawmakers proposed a bill to sanction Chinese companies that engage in “illegitimate activities” in the South China Sea. The bill specifically mentioned (pdf, p. 18) reclamation activities at Scarborough Shoal. Last year the US made clear that such activities would be crossing a red line.
China continues to claim as its own nearly the entire South China Sea, including Scarborough Shoal. That’s despite an international tribunal ruling last July that Beijing’s claim—based on its dubious nine-dash line—had neither legal nor historical basis. It was the Philippines that in 2013 opened the case with the tribunal in the first place, largely in response to China taking over Scarborough Shoal.
But that was during the previous administration in Manila. Even as a presidential candidate, Duterte, who came to power last summer, questioned the usefulness of the case. And once in power he was quick to distance his nation from the US and lean more toward China. During a visit to Beijing last October, he told his hosts, “America has lost now. I’ve realigned myself in your ideological flow.”