(The Philippine Star) | Updated May 15, 2016
Will the Scarborough Shoal be the “red line” for the Philippines and the United States against China’s intention to create a new artificial island in the West Philippine Sea?
The phrase “to cross the red line” is used worldwide to mean a line in the sand or “a limit which safety can no longer be guaranteed.” If the Scarborough Shoal is declared as a “red line” it means that any Chinese incursion into the area will be prevented with force by the Philippine-American alliance.
Although American naval forces have been sailing within the 12-mile limit in other Chinese held artificial islands in the West Philippine Sea, the United States and China have so far avoided direct confrontation. It has also been noticeable that the United States has avoided any explicit statement that it would commit its forces to defend any attack on Filipino maritime vessels and fishing boats that are harassed by Chinese naval vessels. There has been no clear official assurance to the Philippine government by the United States of any US naval or military assistance to prevent any territory from being permanently taken over by China.
American foreign policy has been to declare neutrality on the issue of sovereignty over the Paracel and Spratly islands in the West Philippine Sea. Historically, the US position started in the 1930s when Japan annexed these two island groups. But the Scarborough is a different story. Professor Jay Batongbacal, Filipino maritime law expert, outlines the history of Philippine sovereign claim to the Scarborough Shoal.
The 1900 Treaty of Washington between Spain and the United States stated that all territories administered by Spain as part of the Philippine Islands, even if they were located outside the original 1898 Treaty of Paris, were ceded to the United States. In 1938, the United States Department of State official again officially recognized that the US acquired title to Scarborough Shoal from the basis of the 1900 Treaty.
The State Department allowed the Scarborough’s transfer to the then Philippine Commonwealth with concurrence of the Secretary of the Navy and Secretary of Commerce. Upon its declaration of independence in 1946, the Philippines took over the administration of Scarborough Shoal. In fact, in 1963 the Philippine Navy destroyed a smugglers’ base in the shoal. The Scarborough area was also turned into a gunnery range for the US bases in the Philippines. However, Philippine fishing and survey vessels were allowed to operate in the area.
China did not intrude into the area until after the American bases were closed in 1991. In the early 2000s, China asserted that it had traditional fishing rights in the area. Finally in 2012 China coerced the Philippines into leaving the area and harassed Philippine fishing vessels entering the area.
Political science Professor Richard Heydarian of De La Salle University, recently wrote a paper entitled “Asia’s New Battlefield: The Philippines’ South China Sea Moment of Truth.” Here are excerpts from his article:
China dredger Tian Jing Hao — “The Coral Reef Eater”
“A spectre is haunting Asia – the spectre of full Chinese domination in the South China Sea. Latest reports suggest that China would soon move ahead with building military facilities in the Scarborough Shoal, a contested land feature it has occupied since 2012….This is nothing short of a nightmare for the Philippines which is already struggling to protect its supply lines in the Spratly chain of islands due to growing Chinese military assertiveness in contested waters.
Unlike most of Chinese occupied features which lie well beyond the immediate shores of other claimant states, the Scarborough Shoal is located just about 120 nautical miles off the coast of the Philippines, well within the country’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) – and also its continental shelf. To put things into perspective, the shoal lies 900 kilometers away from the closest Chinese coastline. For Manila, the contested land feature is arguably what James Shoal is to Malaysia and Hainan is to Mainland China.”
Professor Heydarian concludes his paper stating: “In the Scarborough Shoal, America is expected to come to the Philippines rescue if the Philippine “armed forces, public vessels or aircraft in the Pacific” come under attack by a third party ( China) in an event of armed clashes. The United States, along with allies such as Japan and Australia, are also expected to assume the de facto role of enforcers once the arbitration is out. Whether it wants it or not, the Philippines is now at the center of Asia’s new strategic battlefield.
Will the Philippines be willing to deploy its frigates and coast guard vessels to block any efforts by China to build military facilities on the Scarborough Shoal? This may sound like bravado at this point. But if Vietnam was willing to draw a red line in the Paracel island, then the Philippines could also draw its own red line in the Scarborough shoal.
Role of Japan
Japan will not only play a greater role but will even be the decisive factor in the geopolitical conflicts in East Asia including the disputed territories in the South China Sea. Japan has actually more at stake in ensuring that the South China Sea is not completely dominated by China.
Japan has almost no natural resources. Its resource needs, from Africa and the Middle East, must be transported through the South China Sea. In the past, Japan depended on the United States for military protection. But Japan must now prepare for a future where the United States might not be willing to accept full responsibility to serve as the region’s policeman. The third largest economy in the world must now assume the burden of also becoming a military superpower in order to maintain a balance of power in East Asia.