THERE’s certainly a basis to believe so. Just two months after the US Department of Defense announced that the Philippines agreed to allow its military to use four more camps, from the five the Aquino 3rd government committed to in 2014 under the so-called Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) announced a three-day military drill around Taiwan island that started last Saturday.
Dubbed the “United Sharp Sword,” Chinese state media said it involves encirclement of the island by its navy and air force. Western media reported it as a “stern warning” that was the reaction to a meeting between Taiwan’s leader Tsai Ing-wen and US House Speaker Kevin McCarthy in California.
But that meeting was on April 5: Could Chinese leaders have met and decided to order the PLA to undertake a military exercise — involving “long-range rocket artillery, naval destroyers, missile boats, air force fighters, bombers, jammers and refuellers” — in just two days’ time?
It seems more reasonable to believe that China had decided right after the US announcement of the expanded EDCA last February 3, to undertake the PLA’s exercise that rehearses its invasion of Taiwan — and to advance the alleged schedule (2027) for it that US military officials have claimed.
This is more so since even before the new sites were identified, talkative Filipino generals had revealed that at least two of these would be in northern Luzon. It turned out that three of the four new sites are in northern Luzon, all facing Taiwan and therefore clearly intended as forward operating bases that the US military will use to assist the island nation in repelling a Chinese invasion. These camps are Naval Base Camilo Osias and Lal-lo International Airport, both in Cagayan province, as well as Camp Melchor F. Dela Cruz in Isabela.
In a recent media forum at the University of the Philippines, Peking University professor Hu Bo, when asked on the implications of the four new EDCA sites, said: “The Philippines may have gone too far.”
Hu may have expressed the sentiments of the Chinese leadership. They may not have been worried about the earlier five designated EDCA sites, as these seemed to be intended for disputes in the South China Sea, which seem to be cooling down. But for the Philippines to give the US camps close to Taiwan meant a clear and present danger.
A PLA spokesman said of the exercise: “These operations serve as a stern warning against the collusion between separatist forces seeking ‘Taiwan independence’ and external forces and against their provocative activities.”
When the new EDCA sites were announced on February 3, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Mao Ning also implied that the US military’s use of Philippine bases in northern Luzon facing Taiwan were provocative. “It is not the Chinese side that is heightening cross-Strait tensions, but the ‘Taiwan independence’ forces in the island and certain countries that support these forces. We hope regional countries can see clearly who is fueling tensions across the Taiwan Strait for what purpose and will not pull someone else’s chestnuts out of the fire at their own expense,” she added. The “chestnuts” idiom refers to the view that the Philippines is doing the US’ bidding at its expense.
It is unfortunate that we haven’t learned that China has always responded to a provocation in a big way, in order to gain advantage at the end of the day.
In 2012, then President Benigno Aquino 3rd deployed the country’s biggest naval ship, the BRP Gregorio del Pilar — which the US hurriedly refurbished and delivered the previous year — to Scarborough (Panatag) Shoal. A Navy Special Operations Group boarded a Chinese fishing vessel anchored in the lagoon to confiscate what they said were marine endangered species and arrest the fishermen.
However, other Chinese fishermen as well as two non-military government vessels rushed to the area and blocked the entrance to the lagoon. After all, China also claimed the shoal although it had been a practice for decades that the area was open to fishermen from China, the Philippines and Vietnam. Told that the Navy ship had militarized the area and gave the Chinese the high moral ground, Aquino quickly ordered the warship out, leaving only three civilian government vessels there.
A stand-off lasted for four weeks, until the US through US assistant state secretary for Asia Kurt Campbell — in order to prevent a serious armed conflict the US could be dragged into on an election year — fooled Aquino and his foreign secretary Albert del Rosario, telling them that the Chinese had agreed to vacate the area so the Filipino vessels should also leave. China had agreed to no such thing and after the Philippine vessels left, the shoal was in effect turned over to the Chinese, which to this day occupies it.*
Aquino provoked China, resulting in a Chinese response that became a debacle for the Philippines — the loss of Scarborough Shoal.
There’s a second relatively recent case of provocation that turned out very badly for the provocateurs. Prodded and backed by the Americans, Aquino and his foreign secretary Albert del Rosario — gullibly believing in Supreme Court Justice Antonio Carpio’s advice — filed an arbitration suit in 2013 against China.
It asked an arbitral panel to order China to vacate Panatag and the seven other reefs it had occupied in the Spratly islands. While the arbitral panel’s decision has been portrayed by the US as a victory for the Philippines, it was a totally useless one, and not just because most of the world, except the US and its minions, ignored it.
The panel did not rule on the sovereignty claims of China in the South China Sea. It merely claimed that its nine-dash line enclosing most of the South China Sea, first drawn on its maps in 1935 by an overzealous cartographer of the Kuomintang Party when it was in power, had no basis under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. But China’s claims in the Spratlys had never been based on that line, but on totally independent claims of sovereignty, through its official maps, declarations, and in the case of the biggest island in the Spratlys, Itu Aba, its occupation even before World War 2.
China did not participate in the suit. But behind its silence, it retaliated to the “lawfare” against it in a colossal way. It undertook an unprecedented reclamation from 2014 to 2015 on the seven reefs in the Spratlys it had occupied since 1988 (1994 for Mischief Reef). It transformed these into artificial islands, with facilities such as airstrips, ports and other infrastructure that allow these to be made into military installations overnight. It is estimated that this enormous reclamation work cost from $80 billion to $150 billion, making it one of the most expensive infrastructure ever built. The US could only watch helplessly as China was doing such work on the reefs it had claimed and occupied for 25 years.
The reclamation made China the claimant holding the biggest dry land in the Spratlys, with by far the most developed infrastructures. From controlling seven small, mostly submerged reefs in the Spratlys, the provocation that was the arbitration suit resulted in China’s dominant position in the South China Sea.
With these two precedents in responding to a provocation, I don’t think there is any doubt that China will also react in a big way to the Philippine move to allow the US to use its camps facing Taiwan.
If you were a PLA general planning the invasion of Taiwan, would you wait for the US to construct its facilities at the airport and naval base in Cagayan province to make these into state-of-the art military installations for a war in Taiwan?
Other possible Chinese responses to the EDCA provocation would be, first, China’s transformation of Scarborough Shoal into another artificial island with military installations as it did on its seven reefs; and second, a gradual reduction of our trade with what is now our biggest trading partner.
Do we really want to risk this happening?
*This account, never challenged by anybody, even by the US official Kurt Campbell (now President Bidejn’s National Security Council coordinator for the Indo-Pacific), is narrated in detail, with documentation and sources, in my book Debacle: The Aquino Regime’s Scarborough fiasco and the South China Sea Arbitration Deception (available online and at Popular Book Store).
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