What If China Did Invade Pag-asa Island?

An invasion of Pag-asa Island by Chinese forces would certainly be a tragic mistake for China.
By Carl Thayer
The Diplomat

_MG_0082.CR2In the midst of the furor over Hainan province’s new fishing regulations covering nearly sixty percent of the South China Sea, an unnamed Chinese writer penned an article in the Chinese-language publication Qianzhan (Prospects) arguing that China would recover Zhongye Island by force during 2014 as part of a long-term naval expansion plan.

The article likely would have attracted little attention outside China until a summary was translated into English by Chan Kai Yee (who is now often mistakenly listed as the original piece’s author). The summary was published by the China Daily Mail on January 13 under the headline, “China and the Philippines: The reason why a battle for Zhongye (Pag-asa) Island seems unavoidable.”

It is common for retired Chinese military officers and civilian ultranationalists to write about the South China Sea and threaten the Philippines and Vietnam with military action for “stealing” Chinese territory. The Qianzhan article cites unnamed “experts” that the People’s Liberation Army Navy has drawn up a detailed combat plan to seize Zhongye Island this year because of its strategic significance.

Zhongye is better known as Thitu Island or Pag-asa in Tagalog. It is the second largest island in the Spratlys, estimated to cover an area of 37.2 hectares (or 0.14 square miles/0.36 square kilometers). Itu Aba is the largest of the islands in the archipelago and covers an area of 46 hectares in size. It is occupied by Taiwan.

Pag-asa Island lies exposed in the upper northwest quadrant of the Spratlys at the outer boundary of islands and features forming the archipelago. To its west lies the open South China Sea.

Pag-asa Island is designated a town belonging to the Philippine municipality of Kalayaan. It boasts a civilian population of nearly two hundred. Pag-asa contains a number of structures including a municipal building, a community hall, health center, nursery school, water plant, communications tower and an airstrip.

The airstrip, known as Rancudo Airfield, is 1,400 meters in length and services both civilian and military aircraft, including the Philippine Air Force’s C-130 cargo plane. In March 2011, the Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) Eduardo Oban announced plans to upgrade the airfield and repair army barracks. About fifty AFP soldiers are stationed on Pag-asa.

As the article noted, control over Zhongye Island would enable China to exert control over a vast expanse of the South China Sea if it constructed naval and air bases there. The author argued, “the world’s largest aircraft carrier, the [USS] Ford, costs $12.8 billion to build but only has a deck area of 0.026 square km. An air base established on Zhongye Island will be a dozen times larger and cost much less, but it is unsinkable and has a very long service life.”

How plausible is the Qianzhan‘s scenario?

China could easily achieve strategic surprise and seize Pag-asa Island. China could disguise an invasion force as a flotilla engaged in routine naval exercises in the South China Sea. In March-April last year, for example, China assembled a small flotilla to conduct combat training exercises in the South China Sea.

The flotilla comprised the modern amphibious assault ship Jinggangshan, two guided missile frigates and a guided missile destroyer. When the flotilla reached the waters surrounding Mischief Reef, Chinese state television showed pictures of People’s Liberation Army marines in hovercraft storming the beach of a Chinese-occupied islet supported by armed helicopters.

A similar flotilla could set sail ostensibly to undertake normal combat training exercises. It could achieve strategic surprise by veering off suddenly and invading Pag-asa. The Philippines would have little or no warning time to prepare to its defense. The island would probably be taken in a few hours or less.

This scenario assumes that U.S. intelligence and its associated national technical means failed to detect signs of China’s preparations in advance, thus providing no warning time to take action to deter China. China’s seizure of Pag-asa could be expected to follow some signs of deteriorating relations between China and the Philippines or a worsening security situation in the region. These developments might signal a change in China’s intent. This would normally trigger a closer look at Chinese naval and air activities by U.S. intelligence.

China’s seizure of Pag-asa Island would be an act of war. Currently, the Armed Forces of the Philippines would be unable to mount any meaningful response. Chinese destroyers and frigates would provide air defense if the Philippines scrambled jet fighters from the nearest air base on Palawan Island, over 480 km distant. The Philippine Navy would be woefully outgunned.

The Philippines would immediately seek consultations with the United States under their Mutual Defense Treaty to work out a response.

The political fallout from seizing Pag-asa would be a huge set back for Chinese diplomacy. ASEAN would likely adopt an uncompromising political position and demand the immediate withdrawal of Chinese forces. ASEAN would receive political backing from the international community. Chinese aggression could even be raised at the United Nation,; but China would veto any discussion by the Security Council.

China’s actions in seizing Pag-asa Island would set off a race by claimant states to beef up the defense of their islands. This would likely include increased combat air patrols, anti-shipping exercises, and the deployment of conventional submarines. Several of the larger islands could be expected to house anti-ship cruise missiles.

It is regrettable that Qianzhan’s conflict scenario, like so much commentary churned out by retired Chinese military officers and ultranationalists, does not go beyond the bravado of acclaiming a swift Chinese victory to consider the costs of such action to China’s international standing, damage to its economy, and the risks of escalating military conflict.

Many other Chinese writers and analysts argue in support of China’s peaceful rise and support President Xi Jinping’s initiative for a China-ASEAN Treaty of Good Neighborliness, Friendship and Cooperation. These writers and analysts should criticize the hawkish views by retired military commentators and ultranationalist writers for being counterproductive to China’s longer-term interests.

The Philippines is to be congratulated for not rising to the bait. Official spokesmen declined to comment on an article they claimed was unofficial and unverified. Chinese media have already denied the veracity of the report.


6 Responses. Have your say.

  1. Jaime says:

    The fastest and cheapest way of preventing China from taking over the island is for the Phil to ask the US to station some forces there and lease a segment to them with full airport use. The US can do this in an instant. This is better alternative than allowing China to take over and then having to fight to boot them out. Knowing the fact that the US does not have any appetite for engaging in any new fights right now this would be a least cost alternative.

  2. Pons Tucay says:

    Time to get US to back us up by leasing back the Subic Naval Air Station and Clark Air Base since China, for sure, will invade the Scarborough Shoals as they did with Paracels.
    At least, US respects our sovereignty, while China doesn’t (China sent warships to protect the Chinese fishing boats gathering the precious corals within the territory of the Philippines.)

  3. Don Azarias says:

    “An invasion of Pag-asa Island by Chinese forces would certainly be a tragic mistake for China.”

    It’s really a mistake, morally, politically and diplomatically. But does China give a damn about the consequence and world opinion? No, absolutely not! You can ask Tibet and other of China’s small and militarily weak neighboring countries that China annexed through conquest.

    And even if President Barack Obama wants to intervene militarily, I don’t believe the war-weary American people will allow it.

    We have to accept the fact that, at this point, the Philippines doesn’t have significant importance to the U.S., militarily, now that it’s air and naval bases are gone. It’s sad to say that we are on our own.

    • Bobby Bagos says:

      Uncle Sam lost interest in our country the moment he was told the get the hell out and never come back. After all, the only thing these military bases did to our country was to turn our women into prostitute, taint and ruin our environment and kill the economy of the cities that these bases are in. It did’nt matter if they were also here to give us protection from our own enemies as well as their own, the millions of dollars that our government are getting from Uncle Sam for the use of these land, and the opportunity for some of our citizens to have a better life by being married to these brave servicemember. Oh, and let’s not forget the privilege that the US Navy had given our citizens to be able to enlist even though they are not US citizens. We are the only country that I know of that has this privilege. You are right Don, we are on our own, oh the US will probably voice their opinion to the Chinese but that’s about it. So in other words, we are F**ked big time.

  4. China forcefully taking Pagasa islet or any other philippine territory is a probability though it will definitely be a mistake for china. International opinions and reactions will be against Beijing. But it can happen if either he collective Chinese politburo or one trigger-happy military commander errors because of domestic socio-economic-political pressures . Beijing’s internal problems are escalating. The anti-corruption campaign and trial of social protestors are proofs of this. And Beijing is looking for an external whipping horse to divert the domestic anger and save the collective leadership. This is a repeat of the German situation that nurtured hitler’s nazi party and pushed him his third reich to orly war 2. So philippines wake up and plan for the probables.

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