Standing Room Only

by Juan L. Mercado

What do you do when all  seats are taken?

The Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan and Malaysia control real islands in the South  China  sea. ”China came very late to this party and missed out on all the good real estate,”  wrote  British  Broadcasting Corporation’s Rupert Wingfield-Hayes in “China’s Island Factory”. So, it is creating,  through reclamation,  new islands.

Hayes, who joined  BBC in  1999, worked in Beijing  2000 to 2006. He served as Moscow correspondent until  2010 and was named  Middle East correspondent.

Beijing  today seeks “ to dominate sea-space within the first island chain”  Hayes writes. It runs from Borneo’s coast, past Taiwan to southern Japan. It is, in Beijing’s opinion, China’s backyard.

“But in  the longer term,  China  wants to move  beyond the Philippines and southern Japan  to the “second island chain”. That  stretches from  Palau, Guam and  Northern Mariana Islands. This will be a seismic shift in the  “Western Pacific’s   balance of power. “

For the past 70 years , US power has been unassailable there. “Now, for the first time, a new power is emerging with the will and means to challenge America’s military dominance. It is unlikely to be a smooth ride.”

Recent  Philippine navy  photos document  land reclamation work China did since January. It  is building new islands on five different reefs. They are  ‘creating “new facts on the ground.”

Beijing’s belated “nine-dash line” maps sweeps in  a tongue-shaped expanse up to coasts of the Philippines, Vietnam, even Borneo. For decades, China did little to enforce its vague and sweeping claim.  Now, the Communist Party reclassified South China Sea as a “core national interest”. That lumps it with  Taiwan and Tibet  and “means China is prepared to fight to defend it”.

Manila lacks  military muscle. So, the Philippines brought  its case to the UN, seeking a ruling based on  “Law of the Sea” conventions. UNCLOS  usually accords  coastal states an exclusive economic zone up to 200 nautical miles from their coastline.”  ‘An UNCLOS ruling would be good for the Philippines. Beijing  made it clear it will not be bound by any ruling.

This is not just a quarrel with the Philippines and other countries bordering the sea and resources or sovereignty and strategic space, Hayes notes.  Instead it is about China’s real strategic rival: the US.

Washington does not acknowledge China’s claim. And  the US Pacific fleet sails regularly through the South China Sea.   Almost a third of global crude oil and over half of global liquefied gas passes yearly  from African and Persian Gulf suppliers, through the South China Sea, to  Asian consumers.

The “Monroe Doctrine” of 1823  identified the Western hemisphere as America’s backyard, notably the Caribbean Sea. Old European colonial powers were told to keep out.”Today, China is doing something very similar in the East and South China seas.”

Thursday Manila displayed ancient maps which document China’s claims. From the Song Dynasty in  year 960 until  end of the Qing Dynasty  in 1912 , “China’s southernmost territory was always Hainan island, just of the Chinese coast.” All   five constitutions of China, state that point. Non include include Scarborough Shoal, which China seized in June 2012.

Supreme Court Justice Antonio Carpio, who did  the most extensive research on this territorial disputes noted: The facts, “can restrain extreme nationalism or give hope to a just and durable settlement of disputes”.

Indeed, these waters are  dotted “with strange little military outposts and civilian colonies,” Hayes notes.  It’s hard to decipher which is which and who controls who. Pagasa was called Thitu Island; in Chinese it is Zhong Ye Dao, and Dao Thi Tu in Vietnamese..

Johnson South Reef is dubbed Chi Gua, Yongshu, Gac Ma and Mabini reef. And so it goes for the dozens of other islets to  sand bars. The Philippines has nine outposts, Vietnam  eight and  Malaysia  seven  — like China, at last tally. Taiwan has a sprawling airbase in   the biggest island in the Spratlys.

Ayungin Reef is 120 nautical miles from the coast of the Philippines.That puts it well within the Philippines’ claimed 200-nautical-mile “exclusive economic zone”. It is more than 800 nautical miles from the Chinese coast. And yet Beijing claims that this submerged reef is an integral part of Chinese territory.

Pagasa is halfway between Palawan and Vietnam . An eccentriic Filipino  businessman landed there in 1956  and declared it “Freedomland.” Arrested and “forced to hand over his ‘country  by Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos – and paid a token one peso.

Marcos built concrete bunkers along the shoreline plus  anti-aircraft gun emplacements. Only the airstrip remains usable. There are still 30 Philippine marines based on Pagasa. The  marines won’t be able to stop the People’s Liberation Army, if it  decides to clear them out.

Pagasa’s most important asset lies at the far end of the island – a ramshackle village with about 30 families.. The civilians started coming in the late 1970s and gradually they have built a little colony there –“We get a free house, a job and free food,” one said. .”And there is a school for our children”

Like the Philippines, Vietnam is settling civilians on several of the islets it controls. Civilian colonies certainly make military confrontation more difficult and less appetising.

“Shooting soldiers, as China did at Johnson South in 1988, is one thing. Shooting women and children is quite another. Whether these heavily subsidised micro-colonies really strengthen legal claims to places like Pagasa has yet to be tested. Clearly, Manila and Hanoi believe they do.”.

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