By Perry Diaz
“China frigate leaves shoal: Palace happy,” said a huge electronic billboard, which I saw on the way to the Ninoy Aquino International Airport to catch a plane home last July 16, 2012. The news of a grounded guided missile Chinese frigate near Half Moon Shoal (Hasa-Hasa Shoal) in the Spratly archipelago, 69 miles west of Palawan, raised the tension level between the Philippines and China ever since the latter declared the entire West Philippine Sea (South China Sea) an extension of her territorial continental shelf in 2010. And China made it crystal clear that this vast body of water — rich in oil and natural gas deposits — is a “core national interest,” which in diplomatic parlance means “non-negotiable.”
China’s military buildup
And to make sure that everybody — including the United States — knows that she is serious about her stand on the issue, China is building a naval force that would make her the dominant sea power in Asia-Pacific by 2020. And to let everybody know that she means business, she acquired an old aircraft carrier from Russia and retrofitted it with state-of-the-art technology and is now undergoing sea trials.
China is also building two humongous aircraft carriers, which would give her the ability to “defend” her territorial waters from anyone including the United States who recently announced that she would shift 60% of her naval forces to Asia-Pacific by 2020.
With 11 existing aircraft carriers and a new one — the super aircraft carrier USS Gerald R. Ford — projected to be completed within a few years and operational by 2020, that means that the U.S. could deploy seven carrier battle groups to cover the entire Asia-Pacific region including the geostrategic Indian Ocean.
“String of Pearls”
In theory, if armed hostility broke out between the United States and China, the former could block all the choke points along the “String of Pearls” sea lines of communication that extends from Hong Kong by way of the South China Sea (West Philippine Sea), through the strategic Strait of Malacca across the Indian Ocean, and through the Strait of Hormuz to Iran in the Persian Gulf; and to the Red Sea to Port Sudan where China imports 15% of her oil from West Africa. And with long-term contracts to develop Iran’s oil fields, China’s dependence on oil from that region makes it imperative that she defends the “String of Pearls” at all costs.
To do so, China needs to develop economic-military relationships with Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Burma, Maldives, and Kenya. It is not then surprising that U.S. has been trying to partner with India – Pakistan’s nemesis — to counter China’s growing influence in the Indian Ocean.
Cognizant of her weak position vis-à-vis the United States’ superior military power, China has to take full control of the West Philippine Sea and jump-start a pre-emptive military initiative through the use of “gunboat diplomacy” to force the South East Asian nations into submission. The recent failure of the 45th ASEAN Ministerial Meeting to issue a joint communiqué is the result of China’s influence over some of the 10 member-nations.
As Mao Zedong was fond of saying, “Power comes from the barrel of a gun,” the current imbroglio in the West Philippine Sea is a testament to Mao’s strong influence on China’s new generation of leaders who embraced the capitalist-socialist economic system of the visionary Deng Xiaoping. However, with all the economic progress China made during the post-Mao era, China’s new generation of leaders remain steadfast in employing Mao’s “barrel of a gun” strategy. And make no mistake; they are dedicated communist in every meaning of the word. So, don’t expect them to deal with “democratic” countries within the framework of the norms and conventions established by the United Nations, which, ironically, China belongs to as one of only five member-countries who have veto power in the world organization’s powerful Security Council.
China’s intrusive and aggressive behavior during the past two decades attests to her determination to annex the entire West Philippine Sea and exercise total military and economic control over this mineral-rich region.
In 1994, two years after the Philippine Senate evicted American military bases from the country, China started her “creeping invasion” of Philippine territory in the disputed Spratly archipelago. While the Philippine Navy was not patrolling the area around the Panganiban (Mischief) Reef, 130 miles away from Palawan, Chinese troops occupied the reef. Other than lodging diplomatic protests against the incursion, the Philippine government couldn’t do much. Today, the Panganiban Reef is fortified with permanent buildings and naval guns.
Last June, after more than two months of standoff, Chinese gunboats effectively took de facto possession of the Panatag Shoal when they prevented a Philippine Coast Guard vessel and fishing boats from entering the lagoon inside the shoal.
Last July 4, the Philippines protested China’s move that virtually placed the entire West Philippine Sea including the Macclesfield Bank under the jurisdiction of a newly created city, Sansha, in Yongxing Island (Woody Island) in the Paracels. Macclesfield Bank is strategically located east of the Paracel Islands. It is also claimed by the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam. Evidently, China’s action seems to signal that she is increasingly solidifying her position on all the disputed islands in the West Philippine Sea.
But what is strange with the latest incident in Hasa-Hasa Shoal is that the Philippine government through Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario has decided not to file a diplomatic protest over the incursion, saying that the incident was probably the result of an accident. But the question is: What is a Chinese warship — the missile-firing frigate Dongguan — doing in Philippine waters? Isn’t that a sovereignty issue that should be addressed before China becomes more aggressive? Or, did the Philippine government – knowing that it doesn’t have the capability to defend the country – decide that appeasing the Chinese “bully” is the country’s antidote against further incursion or – Heaven forbid! – invasion? Indeed, just the mere display of warships and gunboats inside Philippine territorial waters would be enough to coerce the Philippine government to acquiesce to China’s territorial claims.
And the ultimate question is: Isn’t it time for the Philippines to arm herself in anticipation of a potential armed conflict with China? We have become too reliant and dependent on the U.S.-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty, which in my opinion is good only on paper. Since the eviction of U.S. military bases from our sacred soil, do we expect Uncle Sam to come to our aid at our beck and call? Unless, of course, we’d open our doors and welcome the U.S. military forces back.
But at the end of the day, if there is someone to defend our country, nobody could defend us better than ourselves. If we can’t, history tells us that we would soon cease to exist as a nation.