CHINA’S NEXT SEA FORTRESS – PART OF A TRIANGLE OF OUTPOSTS

Wall Street Journal on August 3, 2015, reported on China’s bid to dominate the Western Pacific from a triangle of outposts in the South China Sea, and America’s role in answering it. There are few better vantage points than the deck of the BRP Ramon Alcaraz. Based at what was once the largest overseas base of the U.S. Navy, this frigate and a small number of other Philippine navy ships are working with the U.S. to defend Philippine territory and regional peace. Excerpts below:

Just over the horizon, China grabbed the Scarborough Shoal from Philippine control in 2012. Beijing is betting that American leaders and voters won’t appreciate the military, diplomatic and economic stakes in the conflict over rocks and islands in the South China Sea.

The Alcaraz started life in 1968 as the USCGC Dallas, a Hamilton-class U.S. Coast Guard cutter based in Governors Island, N.Y.

At some 3,250 tons and 378 feet, it is one of the two largest vessels in Manila’s arsenal.

Beijing is building military bases on artificial islands in the South China Sea, some as far as 750 miles from the Chinese coast and well within Manila’s 200-mile exclusive economic zone around Philippine shores. To date, this activity has been limited to the Spratly Islands, in the sea’s southeastern corner, where China has held various reefs and rocks for decades.

Generally overlooked, meanwhile, is Scarborough Shoal, in the sea’s northeast, which China muscled from the Philippines just three years ago. The shoal lies 120 miles west of Subic, and Philippine officials believe China plans to militarize it, too.

Chinese civilian and paramilitary vessels took Scarborough Shoal after a Philippine navy ship (the BRP Gregorio del Pilar, Manila’s other former Hamilton-class U.S. Coast Guard cutter) tried to block Chinese fishermen from poaching in the area. When a standoff ensued, the U.S. helped broker a deal: Both Philippine and Chinese ships would withdraw before an approaching typhoon. But China broke its word and stayed. The Obama administration, facing elections and distraction at home, rolled over.

Three years later, “a great deal of suffering has been inflicted,” Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario tells me. Chinese patrols now keep Philippine fishermen from waters that had sustained them for centuries.

Scarborough Shoal is almost completely submerged at high tide, but controlling it brings important benefits. By running a cordon across the rock formation’s mouth, Philippine officials note, China has captured 58 square miles of territory, including fisheries and any other resources under the surface.

Then there’s what Beijing might do above the surface. Antonio Carpio is a Philippine Supreme Court justice and an energetic advocate for Philippine rights under the international Law of the Sea. Last month he appeared with a Philippine delegation before a United Nations court in the Hague to challenge China’s dubious claim to nearly all 1.35 million square miles of the South China Sea.

Pointing to the map propped closest to his desk, Justice Carpio notes that a Chinese base at Scarborough would, along with existing bases in the Spratlys to the south and the Paracel Islands to the west, give Beijing a triangle of outposts around the South China Sea’s central shipping lanes, through which $5 trillion in trade passes annually.

With such a footprint, Beijing might create an air-defense zone that would threaten freedom of navigation over some of the world’s most important international waterways. Justice Carpio warns that a base at Scarborough could also boost China’s ability to send submarines through the Luzon Strait (between the Philippines and Taiwan) and into the open Pacific Ocean, where they would be hard to detect and possibly able to target the United States.

Mr. del Rosario, the foreign secretary, confirms this concern, as does a Philippine military spokesman. U.S. officials play down the threat but acknowledge that Chinese facilities at Scarborough could at least seek to hinder Philippine and U.S. operations at Subic Bay and nearby Clark air field, in addition to squeezing commercial and military activity at sea.

The view from Subic Bay underscores the danger of China’s nonpeaceful rise.

Mr. del Rosario counters that “the results of this dispute could affect international order.” “Forty-five percent of world trade traverses these seas, so everyone has an interest in terms of freedom of navigation and overflight,” he says. “But the overriding consideration is that the rule of law must prevail.”

China’s preferred principle is might makes right. And if the U.S. and its partners can’t exercise deterrence at spots like Scarborough and the Spratlys, China’s way could undo decades of stability in East Asia.

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