By Perry Diaz
As soon as the United Nations had awarded Benham Rise to the Philippines than China sets her eyes on this undersea landmass in the Philippine Sea. According to the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), this 13-million-hectare area off the coast of Aurora province is potentially rich in mineral, natural gas deposits, and manganese nodules that are vital in the production of steel. Studies conducted by DENR have also shown large deposits of methane in solid form (methane hydrate or methane ice). Further studies also showed that natural gas deposits in the area would enable the Philippines to achieve energy sufficiency.
The Benham Rise is within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ). However, she did not claim it until 2008. The following year, the Philippines, which was the sole claimant, formally submitted her claim to the U. N. Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf.
Larger than the entire island of Luzon, Benham Rise was awarded to the Philippines in 2012, after the United Nations approved her claim that Benham Rise was an extension of her continental shelf. In December 2013, the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) informed the DENR – with finality — that Benham Rise is part of the country’s continental shelf and territory. As such, it is not subject to any maritime boundary disputes and claims. Wrong!
In February 2016, the Philippines’ Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) reported that several Chinese ships were seen in the Benham Rise. The following July, China Daily published a report about China’s “secret undersea exploration” in the Benham Rise area. The report said that China discovered massive mineral deposits. It also said that the volume of natural gas deposits in the area was at par with what was discovered in the Spratly Islands.
Quid pro quo
With the recent warming up of relations between China and the Philippines under the administration of President Rodrigo Duterte, China has a grand opportunity to solidify her hold on the Spratly Islands and Scarborough Shoal when Duterte visits China in October. It is expected that Chinese President Xi Jinping would shower Duterte – who has shown willingness to put the territorial disputes between the two countries in the back burner – with low-interest loans for infrastructure and economic development projects, and military hardware. But as China had demonstrated in previous “quid pro quo” deals with third-world countries, she’d get more than what she bargained for.
Indeed, China’s “wish list” could include lucrative economic contracts in the areas of energy, transportation, port management, agriculture, mining, and oil and gas exploration. It wouldn’t be surprising if China acquires long-term agreements to use the former American bases – such as the Subic Naval Base and Clark Airbase — as logistical support bases for her growing navy and air force that she needs to project power into the Second Island Chain, which runs from the Ogasawara Islands and Volcano Islands of Japan through Guam and the Marianas to Papua-New Guinea.
If China builds an artificial island on top of Scarborough Shoal (which at 58 square miles is slightly smaller than the area of Quezon City, the capital of the Philippines), she’d be in a position to militarize it. And once militarized – like what she did to the seven artificial islands she built in the Spratlys — she’d be able to control the choke point at the Bashi Channel in the Luzon Strait, which is the gateway to the Philippine Sea… and beyond.
In my column “China raises the ante” (July 31, 2013), I wrote: “Last June 27, 2013, an intriguing article appeared in the Want China Times titled, ‘China to take Second Island Chain by 2020: analyst.’ It says: ‘Within seven years, China will be able to control the Second Island Chain — a series of island groups that runs north to south from the Japanese archipelago to the Bonin and Marshall islands — now that the PLA Navy commands the nation’s first aircraft carrier, according to the Hangzhou-based Qianjiang Evening News.’
“The article also said: ‘In 1982, Admiral Liu Huaqing, the former commander of the PLA Navy and the mastermind of China’s modern naval strategy, said that it would be necessary for China to control the First and Second Island Chains by 2010 and 2020. The PLA Navy must be ready to challenge US domination over the Western Pacific and the Indian Ocean in 2040. If China is able to dominate the Second Island Chain seven years from now, the East China Sea will become the backyard of the PLA Navy.’ ”
With China’s goal of controlling the vast Western Pacific, which includes the East China Sea (ECS), South China Sea (SCS), and the Philippine Sea, the entire Western Pacific would be transformed into “Lake Beijing.” The Philippines would be right in the middle of the lake, isolated from the rest of the world. “Lake Beijing” would also encompass the mineral-rich Benham Rise as well.
As things are today, China is behind in her timetable to achieve control over the First Island Chain, which includes the ECS and SCS. However, by militarizing the Spratly archipelago, the Paracel Islands, and Scarborough Shoal, China would be able to establish a “strategic triangle” formed by these three island groups where China could monitor – and control – all the movements in the SCS. The next step would be to declare an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) over the entire SCS. With an ADIZ already in place over the disputed Senkaku Islands in the ECS, China would then be ready to break out into the Second Island Chain right up to America’s doorsteps, Guam. And the last – and final — step would be to take full control of the choke point at the Strait of Malacca, and eventually… penetrate the Indian Ocean.
What is at stake in these disputed waters is control of the huge mineral deposits, marine resources, and the world’s busiest maritime lanes. What could the U.S. and her allies in the region do to stop China from gaining control over this huge body of water, which extends more than 10,000 miles from the Indian Ocean to the Second Island Chain?
If the U.S. fails to stop China, she might as well kiss the Indo-Asia-Pacific region goodbye and cocoon herself into isolation just like before she entered World War I. But inaction does not guarantee peace either. The “Munich Appeasement” of 1938 did not stop Germany from invading Czechoslovakia. On the contrary, it emboldened Germany to pursue territorial expansion, thinking that the Great Powers – particularly America — wouldn’t intervene. In fact, as Germany continued her conquest of Europe, then U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt told the American people in 1940: “I have said this before, but I shall say it again and again: your boys are not going to be sent into any foreign wars.” Wrong!
When Japan attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, Roosevelt declared war on Japan the following day. A few days later, Germany declared war on the U.S; thus, bringing the world to war once again for the second time.
Which begs the question: Is appeasement a guarantee for peace or just a momentary stop-gap that would only encourage a rogue country – China, Russia, North Korea or Iran — to start another world war? Sad to say, if history is the barometer of things to come, the imbroglio in the SCS has all the elements of war in the offing. And as China sets her eyes on Benham Rise, the world teeters on the brink of World War III.