AFTER setting up a combination of naval and air bases on reefs that it has reclaimed near Palawan in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea), China is extending deeper into Luzon by training its sights on Scarborough Shoal as the next base for its warships and fourth generation of fighter aircraft.
Although it has already been exercising de-facto control over the shoal, after seizing it from the Philippines in 2012, following a naval standoff, Beijing wants to develop Scarborough Shoal into a military base, one that would complete its domination of the region and far beyond.
There are three reasons Chinese military planners wanted full control of the shoal and turn it into a military fortress.
One, it would provide China a full and unimpeded access to Luzon, including its northernmost area, or in the military parlance, it would put the country’s biggest island within a striking distance of Chinese warships and fighter jets;
Second, the rich waters of the shoal, which has been a traditional fishing ground for Filipino fishermen for a number of generations, could help pinch in for Beijing’s hunger and growing need of marine products; and
Third, were the words of Supreme Court Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio who said it would allow China to have easier and unguarded access to the Pacific Ocean through the Bashi Channel, allowing it to attack the mainland United States, particularly Hawaii, in the event of a war.
The Bashi Channel, off Batanes, part of the Luzon Straight in the Pacific Ocean, is a waterway in between the Philippines and Taiwan.
Carpio said he would not be surprised if Beijing would soon start developing Scarborough Shoal and turn it into a base for its vessels and aircraft, just as what it did with the Subi, Fiery Cross and Mischief Reefs in the South China Sea.
Subi Reef, which was seized by China from the Philippines in 1988 and located just 12 nautical miles from Pagasa Island, has been reclaimed and turned into a military base. On the other hand, Fiery Cross was developed into a 274-hectare air base with a 3-kilometer runway.
Carpio’s theory seems to be supported by statements of US military officials who claimed two weeks earlier that Chinese survey ships were undertaking survey activities within and around Scarborough’s lagoon.
The US officials also said they have noticed the unusual presence of more Chinese ships in the area, observations that the Armed Forces would neither confirm nor deny, having gotten used to the regular patrols or stationery presence of Chinese ships in the area.
Scarborough Shoal and its lagoon measures 58 square miles or about 15,000 hectares and it is located just 124 nautical miles from Zambales.
Carpio, who recently delivered a lecture about the country’s territorial dispute with China at the Armed Forces General Headquarter in Camp Emilio Aguinaldo, Quezon City, said the shoal is rich in fish and other marine resources and is a “high-tide elevation with the biggest rock protruding 12 meters above water at high tide.”
He said once the shoal turns into a Chinese military base teeming with People’s Liberation Army Navy ships and Air Force planes, then it could support activities or could serve as a launching pad for Beijing’s military operations in the Pacific Ocean.
The biggest part of such operations were to attack the US by crossing the Bashi Channel.
Domestically, however, it will afford China to take full control of Luzon with relative ease in case of a war.
A senior military official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, agreed with the observations of Carpio, saying the shoal remains the avid “object of conquest” by Beijing due to its strategic location, one that fully supports China’s domination of the region.
He said that, while China already controls the shoal up to the point that it has negated a similar maritime patrol by the Philippine government, Chinese generals were drooling for the time that they could start the reclamation or the construction.
“If this will happen, it is interesting to know what the national government will do, its response. Of course, on the part of the military, we will not easily give away the shoal, but it depends on the decision or course of action of the national leadership,” he said.
The military official, however, admitted that the Philippines and no one, not even the US, could stop China once it starts its reclamation or its development of the Scarborough Shoal. The only question is, when will it happen?
He noted that when Beijing began its reclamations in the South China Sea, both the US and the Philippines took no stronger actions, other than comforting themselves with sharp rhetorics against such activities, which later unearthed bases and military airfields.
Manila merely filed a staccato of diplomatic protests, while assuring Filipinos that the maritime issue would soon end, given that the Permanent Court of Arbitration will decide on the case, which Filipino officials said should be in favor of the country.
On the other hand, the US, which was supposed to be the most powerful military in the world and the self-appointed world’s maritime police just repetitively issued condemnations, despite its stance that what China has occupied and declared as part of its sovereign territory, were part of international waters where international navigation and overflights were supposed to be guaranteed.
“It did nothing, other than monitoring, watching these constructions,” the military official said of the US, adding “it will be the same case once China undertakes activity in the Scarborough Shoal.”
Literally, and for the slighter purpose, this will take place once American troops and their equipment will temporarily station at Fort Magsaysay in Nueva Ecija, one of the military bases that will host US forces and their assets under the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement.
“For us, we may not expect a total game changer with China in the event that the UN court will decide in our favor, diplomatically, maybe. But for the sake of security, it will not. China had refused to participate in the proceedings and so what will you expect? It follows that it will not abide by the decision,” the military official said.
“It takes a harder action, a more decisive one to deal with China on the issue of dispute,” he added.
Sadly, however, the government does not have one, not even a national security policy for the West Philippine Sea as observed by former military intelligence chief Maj. Gen. Francisco Cruz before he retired in 2012.
“The National Security Council [NSC] has not drafted a national security strategy that should directly address the KIG [Kalayaan Island Group] issue. This is reflective of the poor sense of urgency on the part of policy-makers. In July 1999, four years after the discovery of Chinese structures on Mischief Reef, the task of formulating the strategy was delegated to the Cabinet Committee on Maritime and Ocean Affairs, chaired by the secretary of Foreign Affairs,” Cruz said.
“Today the government is still bereft of a coordinated strategy that would employ the country’s elements of national power to assert sovereignty and protect its interests in the West Philippine Sea,” he added.
In December last year the Armed Forces Western Command chief Vice Adm. Alexander Lopez said the national security policy in territory being contested by China is to restrain civilians from sauntering there because it would antagonize Beijing.
The strategic importance of the Scarborough Shoal, apart from being considered a maritime territory of the country, was underscored by the decision of the Navy leadership over the weekend to reactivate the Naval Forces Northern Luzon (NFNL) after having been merged with the Naval Forces West (NFW) based in Palawan.
“The reconstitution of NFNL and NFW signified the reversion of Navy to its previous organizational setup prior the establishment of Naval Forces Northwest [NFNW] in May last year as a result of the merger of the two aforesaid naval forces,” the Navy said through its Spokesman LCdr. Marineth Domingo.
“Said reconstitution followed after the higher headquarters approved the nullification of NFNW, which was then established in the rationale of employing Naval Forces in the proactive control of our seas and the denial of its use to an adversary. While the basis of merging NFNL and NFW to form NFNW last year remains valid, the command decided to reactivate the two Naval Forces on the thrust of higher headquarters and unified commands to have a more focused naval operations in their respective area of responsibility,” it added.
Before it was merged, Naval Forces Northern Luzon was under the operational control of the Armed Forces Northern Luzon Command, and its primary focus was the shoal.
Carpio called a Scarborough military base or the other Chinese bases in the West Philippine Sea as China’s “Pearl Harbor” in Southeast Asia, referring to the US’s Pearl Harbor in Hawaii.
Carpio said that beginning last year, Beijing has shifted from “offshore water defense” to the “combined offshore water defense and open-seas protection” as laid out by China’s military strategy.
“The China military strategy states that the traditional mentality that land outweighs the sea must be abandoned and great important has to be attached to managing the seas and oceans protecting maritime rights and interests,” he said.
“China’s grand design is to control the South China for economic and military purposes. It wanted all the fisheries, oil gas and mineral resources within its ‘nine-dash line.’ China already takes 50 percent of the annual fish catch on the South China Sea. China per-capita fish consumption is the highest in the world at 35.1 kilograms a year, while the rest of Asia’s per-capita consumption is only 26.6 kg per year,” Carpio added.
Nine-dash line is China’s excessive territorial claim which covers 85.7 percent of the total maritime waters of the South China Sea.