Richard Javad Heydarian, Non-Resident Fellow of the Stratbase ADR Institute
Back in 2015, Chinese President Xi Jinping made a public pledge not to “militarize” disputed land features in the South China Sea. Three years on, what we are witnessing is nothing short of “militarization on steroids” across the whole area.
By all indications, China is already on the verge of establishing a full-fledged exclusion zone across the South China Sea. It’s not a matter of if but when. The strategic implications couldn’t be any more self-evident.
President Rodrigo Duterte’s rapprochement with the Asian powerhouse hasn’t tamed China’s maritime and territorial appetite in the West Philippine Sea. If anything, the past two years have only seen acceleration in Chinese reclamation and militarization activities.
China’s unilateral challenge to the maritime status quo in Asia is expected to feature prominently in the upcoming Shangri-La Dialogue (SLD) in Singapore from June 1 to 3, an annual gathering of world leaders and defense ministers from across the region. The event aims to promote a “rules-based” order in the Asia-Pacific region in light of China’s revanchism.
The Philippines can, at the very least, try to resist such deleterious development through diplomatic protests, re-assertion of its rights based on international law, and mobilization of allies and partners across the region.
Anyone familiar with Beijing’s foreign policy knows that, contrary to Duterte’s claims, China is the last country that would resort to war in the South China Sea.
After all, any armed conflict would provide a perfect excuse for America and other global powers to step in; enrage and alienate other smaller claimant states and push them into the West’s strategic embrace; and, crucially, endanger China’s trade linkages, much of which passes through the South China Sea and the Strait of Malacca.
Above all, China would torpedo its bid for regional leadership if it launches a brutal war against a far weaker neighbor such as the Philippines. China understands that leadership is based on authority, which is determined by legitimacy rather than brute force alone.
This is precisely why all key Southeast Asian states, ranging from Vietnam to Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore, have expressed, in varying degrees, their dismay over the militarization of the disputes.
All these countries have made it clear that they will take necessary actions to defend their interests in the area. It’s time for the Philippines to abandon its self-imposed strategic silence on the South China Sea.
WEAPONIZING ARTIFICIAL ISLANDS
Earlier this month, China made the unprecedented move of deploying nuclear-capable H-6k bombers to disputed land features in the South China Sea.
According to the China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA), the giant aircraft undertook exercises “to conduct takeoff and landing training on islands and reefs in the South China Sea in order to improve our ability to ‘reach all [Chinese] territory, conduct strikes at any time and strike in all directions.’”
The exact location of the drills is yet to be confirmed, but the Woody Island in the Paracels, a group of islets also claimed by Vietnam, seems the likeliest candidate. Though the Philippines has no direct claim in the Paracels, which doesn’t fall within the West Philippine Sea (our Exclusive Economic Zone and continental shelf), it has no reason for complacency.
To put things into perspective, the Chinese bombers are capable of conducting nuclear strikes against adversaries and, even more worryingly, have an operational range of more than 10,000 nautical miles. That places the entire Philippines within the range of Chinese bombers, which will likely be also deployed to the Spratlys (Kalayaan islands) in near future.
In the past few months, China has reportedly installed radar and electronic jamming equipment on Philippine-claimed land features; deployed YJ-12B anti-cruise ballistic missiles (ACBMs) as well as HQ-9B surface-to-air-missiles (SAMs) to the Spratlys; and conducted its largest-ever military drills in the South China Sea.
Steadily but surely, China has laid down all the foundational elements of an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ): namely, large-scale airstrips, missile defense systems, deployment of combat aircrafts, regular war games, and artificially augmented islands capable of hosting large numbers of military personnel in the middle of the high seas.
Filipino troops and citizens spread across Spratlys, particularly in Thitu (Pag-Asa) Island, largely rely on food and water provision from mainland Philippines. Soon, China will be in a position to fully restrict, if not cut off, the supply lines of other claimant states, including the Philippines.
WHAT IS TO BE DONE
Even the simple threat of a complete supply-line choke-off could intimate and discourage our continued presence in the area. On the ground, what matters the most is continuous and effective exercise of sovereignty. China’s weaponization of its artificial islands makes that increasingly impossible for us.
Overtime, China would determine the extent of freedom of navigation and overflight, both civilian and military, for other nations’ assets passing through the South China Sea.
This is precisely why the Philippine government should, at the very least, consistently express its discontent over such overt challenge to our maritime sovereign rights as well as international law, namely the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).
Instead of downplaying developments in the area, Duterte should make it clear to Beijing that any challenge to our territorial and maritime integrity wouldn’t be costless.
After all, the Philippines can revamp security cooperation with like-minded friends and allies, including America, Japan, Australia, India, Britain, France, and key members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
The government should also leverage our unequivocal legal victory at The Hague against China based on principles of international law.
Gladly, the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) has made it clear that they “will not renege on our beholden constitutional duties to protect our sovereignty and maintain our territorial areas [in South China Sea].” Hopefully, our civilian leadership will build on the courage and patriotism of our brave soldiers.