THE PRIMACY OF FREEDOM-OF-NAVIGATION
Who Will Wage War to Keep a US$5.3 Trillion Chokepoint Open?
In April 2012, a Philippine Air Force surveillance flight spotted eight (8) Chinese fishing boats anchored in a remote lagoon at the Scarborough Shoal (Spratly Islands) in the West Philippine Sea. The Philippine Navy dispatched its largest naval vessel, the 378-foot cutter BRP Gregorio Del Pilar, to check and apprehend the Chinese poachers.
A team from DelPilar boarded the Chinese fishing vessels and found large amounts of illegally collected corals, giant clams and live sharks. However, two (2) Chinese “surveillance ships” took positions at the mouth of the lagoon screening the fishing boats from Del Pilar and preventing the arrest of the Chinese fishermen. This resulted in a stand-off between the BRP Gregorio Del Pilar and the Chinese, the most high-profile incident between China and the Philippines at that time.
While talks for the orderly withdrawal of the vessels were underway, the Chinese boats sneaked out of the lagoon with their haul of corals, giant clams and live sharks, ending the stand-off. The Philippine Navy, unable to confiscate the Chinese fishermen’s illegal haul because of the Chinese surveillance ships, was left holding the proverbial empty bag.
On the Brink of War?
At the height of that Scarborough stand-off, many feared that if the incident got out of hand it could trigger a shooting war between the Philippines and China. Political analysts noted, though, that the Philippines would avoid a military confrontation and exhaust all peaceful means to settle the row with China. The Philippines’ armed forces, after all, pale in comparison to China’s military might. Still, the Philippines has the Mutual Defense Treaty with the United States where they are treaty-bound to support each other in case of an armed attack, making the Philippine military position somewhat tenable, even if tenuous.
China, while obviously belittling the Philippine military, had to be careful in its muscle flexing as it could drag the US into the conflict. In fact, at the height of the stand-off, the dispatch of 4,500 US troops to the Philippines to participate in RP-US joint military exercises could have sent a sobering message to the Chinese.
To date, however, the US remains cautious in drawing its the position in the region, refusing to take sides on the territorial disputes but consistent and unequivocal in its commitment to freedom-of-navigation according to international law.
China’s Aggressive Expansion Worries the US
China’s continued construction and reclamation works at the disputed islands and reefs are raising alarm and serious concern in Washington and the US response has been emphatic.
At their joint press conference during Chinese President Xi Jingping’s state visit, President Barack Obama minced no words in raising this concern, particularly its implication on maritime traffic and freedom of navigation.
“I indicated that the United States will continue to sail, fly and operate anywhere that international law allows,” Pres. Obama said.
Apparently unfazed, Pres. Xi’s retort was equally emphatic. “Islands in the South China Sea since ancient times are China’s territory,” he said, adding that China is just asserting its “historic rights” in its territorial claim on most of South China Sea based on the 9-dash line.
In light of those conflicting views, the recent talks between the two powerful heads of state fell woefully short of a breakthrough on the settlement of conflicting claims over the strategic region.
China asserts sovereign authority around the 12- nautical mile boundary of the new islands it has built in the disputed shoals and reefs. China’s position is, however, rejected by the other claimant nations, the Philippines bringing China to UN arbitration. The United States, while not a claimant, says the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) which Beijing has signed does not recognize artificially constructed outposts as legitimate islands. And despite China’s warnings to foreign vessels and aircrafts to stay away from their claimed sea and air corridors, the US continues to fly surveillance flights around the area.
Two (2) incidents of close encounters between Chinese and US aircrafts have already been reported. According to an online report, a few days before Xi’s trip to Washington, a Chinese fighter jet flew in front of a U.S. RC-135 reconnaissance plane east of the Shandong Peninsula in the Yellow Sea. And in August 2014, US authorities condemned China for the reckless maneuver of one of its J-11 fighter jets when it passed within 20 feet of a U.S. P-8 Poseidon and performed a barrel roll. To avoid such incidents U.S. and Chinese defense officials recently announced a memorandum on rules for action when aircraft from the two nations fly in close proximity.
US to Challenge China
Recent developments show that, even with the global economic importance of the growing US-China relationship, the US government is concerned over China’s uncompromising stand on the South China Sea territorial dispute with other claimant nations, especially with regard to freedom of navigation.
According to Centre on US-China Relations director Orville Schell, the Obama administration was losing patience with China’s “very forceful, even sometimes belligerent” behaviour.
“I think Washington is at something of a tipping point moment with both China and Xi. I think they are definitely toying with taking a much harder line,” Schell said.
The US recently deployed naval ships and aircrafts within China’s declared 12 nautical mile no-sail zone directly challenging China. The US action is expected to further raise tensions in the region. But the Obama administration is faced with the dilemma of sending the wrong signal to China that it is tacitly accepting its territorial claims and expansionist action if it did not push through with its “Operation Freedom of Navigation.”
According to Pentagon sources, in less than two (2) years, China has built outposts on top of seven (7) reefs covering more than 3,000 acres. These include three (3) airstrips, a radar and communications facility and deep ports dredged to accommodate larger navy ships. And although the United States says it does not take a position on competing claims in the South China Sea, it is, however, concerned over the tactics being employed by China in building artificial islands and installing military facilities on disputed reefs or rocks. The US believes that international laws and rules should serve as the foundation in resolving the issues at hand.
“If one country selectively ignores these rules for its own benefit, others will undoubtedly follow, eroding the international legal system and destabilizing regional security and the prosperity of all Pacific states,” U.S. Pacific Command head Adm. Harry Harris said during a September 2015 US Senate Armed Services Committee hearing. According to Harris, he favors sending ships and planes within the 12-mile zone to send a clear message to China that its territorial claims on some islands at the South China Sea carried no legal weight. Relatedly, that claim of China was further weakened by the recent decision of the UN arbitral tribunal giving due course to the Philippine claim to the same islands.
What’s in the Spratly Islands?
The Spratly Islands are composed of more than 750 reefs, islets, atolls, cays and islands in the South China Sea which lies off the coasts of the Philippines, Malaysia, and southern Vietnam. Aside from the Philippines and China, other countries involved in competing claims on parts of the Spratly group of islands are Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan, Japan and Brunei, among other Asian countries.
A major archipelago in the South China Sea, the Spratly Islands which is named after its discoverer, 19th-century British Whaling Captain Richard Spratly in 1843, contains approximately 4 square kilometers (1.5 square miles) of land area spread over an area of more than 425,000 square kilometers (164,000 square miles) of sea. This vast sea expanse is not only a major shipping lane and trade route between the east and west, but it is also seen to have significant oil and natural gas reserves. And while about 45 Spratly islands, reefs, cays and other features are occupied, most if not all of these structures and inhabitants are, however, military facilities and personnel from claimant nations like the Philippines, China, Taiwan, Vietnam and Malaysia. The area is a rich fishing ground for various nationalities, until China imposed the 12- nautical mile navigational restrictions from its claimed isles and reefs, making the area a fishing ground only for Chinese fishermen.
Trade and Economic Significance: The Chokepoint
As a major trade route between the east and west, around 30% of the world’s maritime trade, or about $5.3 trillion worth of goods pass through the South China Sea each year. And U.S. trade accounts for $1.2 trillion of this total figure. China has employed hordes of Chinese fishing boats for its flotilla of maritime militia to affirm its claim on the disputed sea lane without necessarily creating a military posture in the area. Global economists fear that the diversion of cargo ships to routes other than South China Sea, should the Spratly Islands territorial dispute worsen, could result in higher cost of trade between the east and west due to longer transit days and higher cost of insurance.
Moreover, earlier reports say there are also fears that China might declare the disputed area as an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ), just as it did at the East China Sea in its territorial dispute over some uninhabited islands with Japan over two years ago.
In an online report, Center for a New American Security’s Asia-Pacific Security Program senior fellow Mira Rapp Hooper said, “All of the equipment and the airstrips that they are currently laying down in the Spratly Islands are consistent with creating a South China Sea ADIZ.” With ADIZ, China can demand that all aircraft entering the area provide their flight route and require them to abide by instructions from the Chinese military.
A way out of war, a win for the Philippines.
The Philippines recently scored a major victory in the arbitration case it filed at the United Nations Arbitral Tribunal for the peaceful resolution of its dispute with China. “The nine-dash line (of China) was totally ignored by the Tribunal,” Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio of the Philippine Supreme Court told a forum of journalists, lawyers and historians, in the wake of the unanimous ruling by the UN tribunal.
China, standing by its nine-dash line claim, had ignored the UN tribunal insisting that the issue was one of sovereignty, but this was dashed by the tribunal’s unanimous decision to give due course to the Philippine claim that “certain actions of China in the South China Sea violate the Convention (UNCLOS).”
“China’s decision not to participate in these proceedings does not deprive the Tribunal of jurisdiction and that the Philippine decision to commence arbitration unilaterally was not an abuse of the Convention’s dispute settlement procedures”, the UN tribunal said.
With only a few refurbished boats for its navy, an air force composed mostly of transport and trainer planes, a few helicopters and fighter jets, and an army of less than a million soldiers, this Philippine victory in the UN Arbitral Tribunal grows in significance. The Philippines has every reason to avoid an armed conflict with China, and now has the motivation to pursue the UN claim in earnest. Undoubtedly, Philippine military capability is no match to China’s military might but the UN arbitration can be a level playing field.
The Philippines, of course, has the Mutual Defense Treaty with the US where either party is obliged to support the other, should any party to the treaty get entangled in an armed conflict.
According to an earlier CNN Philippines report, U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, in his recent visit to Pearl Harbor said, the U.S. does not want a war in the South China Sea. But Carter also stressed that the U.S. would stand with its allies against provocations from China.
“China’s actions are bringing countries in the region together in new ways. And they’re increasing their demand for American engagement in the Asia-Pacific, and we’re going to meet it. We will remain the principal power in the Asia-Pacific for decades to come,” Carter said. Philippine Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin, for his part, affirmed the ironclad alliance between the US and the Philippines.
The current situation at the South China is very volatile. According to former ABC News Beijing bureau chief and president of the Philippine Association for China Studies Chito Sta. Romana, the US-Philippines alliance is a double-edged sword. “The Philippines, being the treaty ally, you now face the risk of being involved in a great power rivalry. There is a strong possibility that the Philippines could be caught in the crossfire between the two powers,” Sta. Romana warned.
With China’s declaration of the 12-nautical mile no-sail zone around its claimed islands and reefs affecting freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, the US has turned even more aggressive in challenging China. The recent US Navy pass along China’s declared no-sail zone and its planned second pass has prompted China to strongly warn the US against such actions, saying they cannot guarantee China’s own action should the US push through with its planned second pass.
As the country is in the crossfire, the Philippines must keep a watchful eye on the growing militarization of the issues on the West Philippine Sea and China’s 9-dash claim. Should the big boys decide to brawl, this would be at the Philippine doorsteps and the fallout will hit its populace, full force.
On the other hand, while the UN arbitral decisions have favored this much smaller nation, as Justice Carpio warned, no instant gratification or settlement can be expected as China, big as it is, will only yield to bigger forces, i.e., the rest of the global community acting in concert to enforce the UN decision.
So, as things stand now, the process questions should be: Can or will China bottle up the P5.3Trillion maritime corridor? Who can uncork it, if or when it should happen? Will war have to be waged? And in such a war, how do the crossfire states like the Philippines manage the fallout?