How China Is Tipping The World To War At Scarborough
Gordon G. Chang , Contributor
“We cannot stop China from doing its thing,” said Rodrigo Duterte on Sunday. The tough-talking Philippine president sounded meek as he referred to Beijing’s plans to build an “environmental-monitoring station” on his country’s Panatag Shoal in the South China Sea.
Panatag, better known as Scarborough, is merely a collection of rocks poking out of the water at high tide. Seemingly insignificant, that feature is where the United States and the international community should draw the line, where they should be willing to use force to stop Chinese aggression.
Last Monday, the official Hainan Daily quoted Sansha City Communist Party Secretary Xiao Jie, who noted that this year China planned “preparatory work” for the monitoring stations on six South China Sea features, five in the Paracel chain and one on Scarborough.
Scarborough is 124 nautical miles from the main Philippine island of Luzon and 550 nautical miles from the closest recognized Chinese land mass, Hainan Island.
China seized Scarborough from the Philippines in the first half of 2012, swarming the feature with its vessels and ejecting Filipino fishermen. Since then, Beijing has allowed Philippine fishing craft to come back but has nonetheless kept control of the area.
China’s allowance of fishing craft around Scarborough was an apparent response to the July 12, 2016 ruling of an arbitral panel in The Hague. The tribunal, interpreting the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, held Beijing had violated the traditional fishing rights of the Philippines around Scarborough.
Moreover, the Hague panel, although not technically deciding issues of sovereignty, essentially invalidated Beijing’s claim to Scarborough as well as most of the South China Sea. China’s official maps contain nine or ten dashes enclosing about 85% of that body of water, and Beijing maintains it has sovereignty to every island, reef, rock, and atoll inside the boundary, including Scarborough.
The Hague panel found the seas around Scarborough were not part of a Chinese EEZ. An EEZ is that band of water between 12 and 200 nautical miles beyond a country’s shore, and in that zone the coastal state generally has the exclusive right to fish and mine for minerals.
The Chinese have on various occasions threatened to make permanent their act of aggression by pouring sand and cement over Scarborough’s rocks, turning the feature into an island, as they have done, most famously, in the Spratly chain in the southern portion of the South China Sea.
The building of a monitoring station on Scarborough, in the view of military analysts, would be the prelude to a full-scale reclamation of the feature.
President Obama on at least one occasion—in March of last year-warned Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping there would be “serious consequences” if his country paved over—reclaimed—Scarborough Shoal. China heeded the warning by withdrawing dredgers.
Last week’s report from the Hainan paper suggests, with Obama gone from office, Beijing is testing President Trump on the issue of reclamation.
There is much at stake. Obama in June 2012 had brokered a deal for both China and the Philippines to withdraw their craft around Scarborough. Only Manila did so, leaving Beijing in firm control of the feature.
Washington decided not to contest China’s seizure, thinking the matter was not worth a confrontation. That was a mistake that soon became apparent. The most belligerent elements in the Chinese political system, after showing that aggression worked, went on a tear.
Within months after taking Scarborough, Beijing rapidly stepped up its incursions around the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, claimed by China but under the control of Japan. At about the same time, the Chinese ramped up pressure on Second Thomas Shoal, another South China Sea feature thought to be part of the Philippines.
If China reclaims Scarborough, it will be able to dominate the South China Sea. “A radar station on Scarborough Shoal will immediately complete China’s radar coverage of the entire South China Sea," said Philippine Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio last week. “China can them impose an ADIZ or air defense identification zone in the South China Sea.”
And that is not all that could go wrong. If there is no resistance to a reclamation, Beijing will almost surely press Japan to surrender Okinawa and the rest of the Ryukyu chain. Chinese state institutions, backed up by Chinese state media, are already calling for Beijing to raise a sovereignty claim to those strategic Japanese islands.
Unfortunately, Beijing’s territorial ambitions are growing over time. Today, we are seeing the same dynamic in China’s peripheral seas as occurred in the 1930s, when Japan was intent on dismembering the Chinese state and when Germany tore apart its neighbors. This is not to say the People’s Republic of China is the Empire of Japan or the Third Reich of Germany, but it is to say that the pattern of aggression today resembles that leading up to history’s most devastating conflict.
America, however, has forgotten a critical lesson. “I don’t think that we’d allow the U.S. to get dragged into a conflict over fish or over a rock,” said a “senior U.S. military official” to the Washington Post in 2012, at the time of China’s seizure of Scarborough. “Having allies that we have defense treaties with, not allowing them to drag us into a situation over a rock dispute, is something I think we’re pretty all well-aligned on.”
The U.S., as that comment shows, did not want to honor its mutual-defense treaty with the Philippines then, but Washington did not avoid a confrontation with Beijing. America merely postponed it. China, unfortunately, will not stop until it is stopped.
China must be stopped somewhere. Scarborough is the place. And now is the time.