Last of 2 parts
This is the second instalment (the first was published last Friday) of Chapter 9 of my book, Debacle: The Aquino Regime’s Scarborough Fiasco and the South China Sea Arbitration Deception, which discusses this development in detail, with the appropriate citation of sources of data and statements. The book is being printed now, to be distributed in the first week of January, pre-orders at https://rigobertotiglao.com/debacle/.
CHINA’s massive island-building blitz is a version — of the classic (although not always successful) response to international disputes — the so-called “sunk costs strategy.” This means, crudely, that a nation would succeed in convincing a belligerent rival not to invade if it invests heavily in arms and even a defensive wall.
The billions of dollars that China has spent in building its artificial islands and the facilities within was a strong signal to the US that any decision of a tribunal that China has no claims in the South China Sea (SCS) will be ignored. To illustrate in a vivid manner: an elite US Navy team could probably have taken over Mischief Reef before 2013. Now, it would require a brigade to capture the huge facility in Mischief Reef.
It is astonishing — or a case of colossal stupidity — that the Aquino 3rd regime, as well as the US strategists who shepherded the arbitration suit thought that through “lawfare,” they could get China to give up its seven reefs in the Spratlys, or that the Chinese would not do anything in response to such “new form of warfare.” It was a huge miscalculation on the part of the US, as was indeed the Obama administration’s entire “Pivot to Asia” policy.
In the first place, they ignored the fact that China had become a superpower and as the noted American historian, Graham Allison, has pointed out, referring to the suit, and even before the award was handed down: “Great powers do not recognize the jurisdiction of international courts — except in particular cases where they believe it is in their interest to do so.”
Secondly, the Aquino 3rd regime and its US backers ignored the history of the Spratly islands dispute, especially how China had behaved since 1974. The biggest lesson of this history: “Whenever a claimant moves to enforce its claim of sovereignty over features in the area, a competing claimant swiftly ‘establishes the facts on the ground.’
This is a diplomatic term that was popularized in the 1970s (which referred to Israel’s move to have its citizens settle in the West Bank that it had grabbed from Jordan), which means the “situation in reality as opposed to the abstract.” Thus, a competing claimant becomes more aggressive to strengthen its position by building more infrastructure on its claimed lands. In this case in the Spratlys, by expanding the reef through land reclamation and adding facilities to the new island.
While the Aquino 3rd government and the US loudly protested China’s “island-building” blitz, it was not unprecedented. “Island-building,” although on a much smaller scale, had been a means for claimants to strengthen their positions in the Spratlys dispute.
In the case of Itu Aba (Taiping Island), the Kuomintang Party forces had abandoned it in 1950, when it decided to concentrate all its forces to defend Taiwan, believing that the Chinese communists were preparing to invade the last territory they held. However, when Filipino mariner Tomas Cloma in 1956 claimed the whole of Spratlys, including its largest island Itu Aba, calling it his “Freedomland,” the Kuomintang didn’t just file a protest against it.
It “established facts on the ground.” The Kuomintang sent a battalion of marines to secure Taiping and subsequently turned it into a coast guard station with 200 personnel, a hospital and lighthouse. Taiwan subsequently developed it as a Navy garrison and by 2008 had a 1,050-meter airstrip that could accommodate C-130 transport planes.
Similarly, Marcos had planned as early as 1969 the annexation of the same area that Cloma had claimed, in order to secure the Reed Bank, which oil exploration firms’ initial surveys had indicated possibly contained commercial-scale hydrocarbons.
However, he first “established facts on the ground.” Marcos had troops invade and occupy six islands, including Pag-asa, the second biggest in the Spratly archipelago. A few years later, in 1978, he issued Presidential Decree 1596 that officially annexed the Kalayaan Island Group into the country.
It was the Philippines during the Marcos era that first reclaimed land to expand an island in the Spratlys, Pag-asa or Thitu Island, and it was also the first to build an airstrip in the disputed area.
The Vietnamese didn’t idly watch Marcos troops’ invasion of six features in 1971, but occupied nine smaller islands and islets in 1974 and 1975. Starting in the 1990s, Vietnam’s reclamation work on these islands expanded their original area by 101 hectares.
Malaysia was the latecomer in the Spratlys dispute. After it drew its United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos) baselines, it claimed seven reefs and islands in the Spratlys were within its EEZ (exclusive economic zone). Like the Philippines, Vietnam, and much later, Malaysia, these countries “established facts on the ground.”
In 1983, Malaysia’s Special Forces occupied Layang-Layang Island (Swallow Reef), which is also claimed by China and Vietnam (but not the Philippines). In subsequent years, Malaysia turned it into a scuba-diving resort, with tourist accommodations, including an airport with a 1,064-meter runway.
Taking advantage of the chaos in the Philippines after the “People Power” event in February 1986, Malaysia occupied Antonio Luna (Ardasier) Reef in April that year and Mariveles Reef in November. In April 1999, Malaysia also took control of Pawikan (Investigator) Shoal and Gabriela Silang (Erica) Reef. Malaysia built structures on all these reefs and shoals.
After the Aquino 3rd regime filed its arbitral case, China simply acted as the Philippines and Vietnam had done in the 1970s: It enforced its claim not just through debate or diplomatic protests, but through physical actions, transforming the reefs it already controlled into man-made islands.
Vietnam also followed China’s lead in the transformation of its reefs into artificial islands. From March 2013, or just two months after the Philippines sued China, Vietnam added 48 hectares to, and built additional fortifications, on 13 cays and reefs it had occupied since 1988. It added new communications equipment, a sports field and extended its airport runway on its largest property in the Spratly Islands.
Gregory Poling, director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative which the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies had set up as an anti-China propaganda venue, claimed Vietnam’s moves made their occupied islands and reefs harder for China to take without a cost.
But that is actually another of the justifications China has given for its artificial island-building blitz. In China’s case though, it is the US that is the primary threat.
A New York Times article in 2015 reported: “One of China’s most outspoken officials on the South China Sea, Wu Sichun, who heads the influential South China Sea Institute, said China had been ‘forced’ to create the artificial islands as a way of defending itself. That view is popular among the Chinese public. ‘China is forced to do the reclamation,’ Mr. Wu said, ‘because we feel insecure. If you look into the security situation, the United States enhanced defense cooperation with the Philippines and that could last for 10 years.”
The defense of its holdings in the SCS had become of paramount importance to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and not because the area is a potential source of hydrocarbons and aquatic resources.
The area has become important to the CCP because its legitimacy in the past decades became based on two things. First was its ability to develop China economically and to lift its citizens from poverty. Second was its nationalism, and its success in restoring to China its ancient greatness, which it deemed was stolen by Western colonial powers during its “century of humiliation.”
The communist leadership by the start of the 21st century clearly had succeeded in developing its economy that, according to the World Bank, it achieved the miracle of pulling 500 million Chinese out of poverty in just a decade.
The Aquino 3rd regime disregarded China’s warnings not to allow oil exploration in the Reed Bank. Then it militarily challenged China when it deployed a warship to arrest its fishermen in Scarborough Shoal. It also filed a suit in an international venue, the first such legal move against it ever. If it had not reacted forcefully to these challenges, the Communist Party’s credentials as China’s vanguard in upholding its sovereignty would have been damaged, weakening its legitimacy. Moreover, China was already an economic superpower that it could afford its massive island-building enterprise costing at least $150 billion.
China’s new artificial islands have radically changed the balance of power in the SCS. “The new islands allow China to harness a portion of the sea for its own use that has been relatively out of reach until now. Although there are significant fisheries and possible large oil and gas reserves in the South China Sea, China’s efforts serve more to fortify its territorial claims than to help it extract natural resources,” said Mira Rapp-Hooper, former director of Asian Maritime Transparency Institute.
Aquino, Carpio and del Rosario as well the US conspired to push back China away from the Spratlys through the arbitration suit. Instead, the chain of fortifications in the Spratly archipelago that was China’s response to it markedly enhanced its presence and strengthened in practical terms its claims of sovereignty over the disputed islands.
China should be giving this trio its highest medals.
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