Last July, the Arbitration Tribunal in the Hague ruled that the waters around Scarborough Shoal lay within the Economic Exclusive Zone of the Philippines and that Filipino fishermen possessed traditional fishing rights at the Shoal.
China has chosen to reject the decision and continues to keep Filipino fishermen out of the area. A think tank, the CSSI, recently reported: “ We’re seeing bullying, harassment and ramming of vessels from countries whose coast guard and fishing vessels are much smaller, often to assert sovereignty throughout the South China Sea. In the meantime, while Filipino fishermen are being prevented from fishing, Chinese fishermen have been actively fishing in Scarborough Shoal. Recently, even large purse seiner fishing boats have been spotted in the area.
While it has become a common sight to see hundreds of Chinese fishing vessels in the area, it has also become noticeable that China has increased the number of its combat vessels patrolling the Scarborough Shoal. From the usual two to three vessels, it has now increased to more than a dozen combat vessels.
Recently, China sent seven coast guard vessels and over 200 hundred fishing vessels to the waters around Senkaku Island in the East China Sea – an area claimed by Japan. This incursion drew protest and a strong reaction from Japan. Is China planning to do the same thing in the Scarborough Shoal?
Building a Scarborough base
For the Philippines, reclaiming traditional fishing rights in the Scarborough Shoal area is the immediate concern. However, the more critical and far reaching potential danger to Philippine security is the much talked about plan of China to convert Scarborough Shoal into an artificial island and build a military based on an area only 150 nautical miles west of Luzon.
From all indications, it is apparent that China is definitely planning to build another artificial island 150 miles west of the Philippines. It would seem that as far as China is concerned, the only question is determining the proper time.
A recent report in the Hong Kong based South China Morning Post stated that China was just waiting for the completion of the G20 Summit meeting in Beijing before it will start dredging the Scarborough Shoal preparatory to building an artificial island.
There have been speculations that Beijing might begin reclamation work right before the November elections in the United States. The transition from one administration to another might provide an opportunity for Beijing to take aggressive actions without any immediate reprisal from a lame duck administration.
Another Chinese policy paper circulating among Beijing’s foreign policy think tanks proposes that any reclamation effort should wait until after the 2017 People’s Congress or after Xi Jinping has consolidated all the powers.
Why is reclaiming Scarborough Shoal so important to China’s strategy in the South China Sea? A look at any regional map will easily provide the answer.
Controlling and militarizing the Scarborough Shoal will give China virtual control over the South China Sea. This will, in turn, tilt the balance of power in East Asia in favour of China. Eventually, this could lead to China attaining its goal of being the supreme power in the Asia Pacific region.
An air and naval facility in the Scarborough Shoal, together with the seven islands and bases in the Spratly area, will give China effective control over air and maritime access to the waters of the South China Sea. For example, a strategic triangle could be established by China by linking reefs and artificial islands from the Paracel Islands to the west and the Spratlys to the south and to Scarborough to the east. That would allow it to enforce an Air Defense Identification Zone over the whole area and require all commercial and military aircraft to seek permission from China before being allowed to fly over the South China Sea.
A base in Scarborough would also give China full radar coverage over most of Luzon including Subic and Clark. It would also give China the capability to declare an Air Defense Identification Zone over the Philippine Exclusive Economic Zone or the West Philippine Sea.
There is one big difference between the disputes in Spratly and Scarborough. The disputed reefs and shoals in the Spratlys are the subject of multiple rival claims from China and other Southeast Asian countries including the Philippines, Malaysia, and Vietnam. The Scarborough Shoal pits the Philippines directly against China.
Is Scarborough a Red Line?
It seems that China fully intends, sooner or later, to build an artificial island in Scarborough even at the risk of a military confrontation with the United States. It is also possible that China is testing whether the USA is really willing to risk conflict over Scarborough. After all, the American government has never really publicly stated that it would be prepared to militarily confront China if it builds an artificial island.
A geopolitical scholar has theorized that the United States will not take any step unless the Philippines takes the initiative to first confront China with whatever forces it can muster. Only then can the United States step in to aid an ally.
The Scarborough Shoal will continue to be one of the biggest challenges for Philippine national security and sovereignty.
Philippines President Duterte: ‘I’d like to beat up whoever grabbed Scarborough’ — Plus some ideas on how to make progress with the U.S. and China (Contains links to related articles)