Exploring the depths of China-Philippines sea row



Former ISAFP chief Gen. Victor Corpus is consistent in the view that what is being contested in the simmering tension between the Philippines and China is the Manila Trench. According to Vic, the trench is ideal for movements of US nuclear submarines in the event of outbreak of hostilities between the United States and China.

Up until recently, this contention by the general appeared to be valid. By virtue of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Force (INF) Treaty the United States had with Russia, either was precluded from establishing land-based nuclear warhead launchers at a certain proximate distance against each other, more explicitly at a point that is not any of the parties’ territory. But the ban does not apply to missiles launched from submarines, and in this, the Manila Trench serves the US a very practical purpose: maneuverability of its giant nuclear submarines for firing missiles against anybody in the Asia Pacific region, unencumbered by the INF.

But then, beginning in 2012, China embarked on a binge of artificial island building on features of the South China Sea. This was how the matter was carried by my column of Aug. 13, 2017 in The Manila Times (“A call for calm and balance in the Spratlys dispute”), thus:

“As attested to as far back as 2012 by then outgoing Intelligence chief of the US Navy’s Pacific Fleet Capt. James E. Fannel, in a speech before admirals and other officers of the US Navy, China by then already had eight military installations on seven reefs on the Spratly Islands, six of them and the features they contained being:

“Johnson South Reef, known in the Philippines as Mabini Reef — in which about 10 hectares had been reclaimed for their transformation into a military base, containing a three-story concrete building ringed with gun emplacements and a helipad;

“Mischief Reef – a three-story concrete building ringed with five octagonal concrete structures. It has searchlights and radar.

“Cuarteron Reef – a permanent reef fortress, supply platforms, and naval and anti-aircraft guns. An airstrip is reportedly being planned.

“Fiery Cross Reef – A marine observation station designated in 2011 as “main command headquarters,” equipped with surface and air search radars and armed with at least four high-powered naval guns.

“Gaven Reef – a permanent reef fortress, supply platforms and harbor for navy patrol boats.

“Subi Reef – a permanent reef fortress and supply platforms that can house troops, has a helipad and is armed with four twin-barrel 37mm naval guns. Also houses a Doppler weather radar.

“China already maintains a military outpost on Woody Island in the Paracels. Vietnam and Taiwan are contesting the island, which currently has a population of more than 1,000 and features an artificial harbor capable of docking vessels of up to 5,000 tons and an airport with a 2,700-meter runway capable of handling fighter aircraft.
“Johnson South Reef, which is also being claimed by Vietnam, was the scene of a bloody confrontation in 1988 that resulted in the death of 70 Vietnamese and the sinking of two Vietnamese boats and the Chinese occupying the reef.”

Over time, the above Chinese occupations got exposed to be actually military fortifications capable of launching naval warships and warplanes against potential Chinese foes in the South China Sea region. Admittedly equipped with anti-ship missiles, these Chinese fortifications, among other accomplishments, have gained the advantage of effectively neutralizing US naval strength in the area — including the otherwise unstoppable capability of US nuclear submarines lurking in the deep recesses of the Manila
Trench to fire nuclear missiles at the vulnerable east coast of China.

It is this perspective of the South China Sea conflict that must be made to permeate every level of the Filipino people, not just the “thinking” sector, but also, and all the more so, the basic masses, the working masses who are the worst sufferers in instances of war.

Is it any coincidence at all that once it became clear that China was building forward military bases out of its occupied islands in the South China Sea, the Scarborough Shoal standoff happened, and that as China persisted in its occupation of the area, the Benigno Aquino 3rd administration sailed on from there to the so-called Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) where it sought to invalidate China’s historical “nine-dash-line,” the anchor of Chinese claim to sovereignty over the entire expanse of the South China Sea.

I believe we have been barking up the wrong tree in trying to figure a way out of the PCA impasse: to push or not to push. And in so doing, we suffer the rigmarole of digging up legal points to boost the Philippine position in the dispute — completely ignoring that at no instance in history have international disputes been resolved through legalese.

The Potsdam Declaration had formally ended World War 2, by virtue of which the Allies proceeded to dismember the defeated Germany. But Japan would not acquiesce to the terms of the Potsdam Declaration, which required Japanese unconditional surrender. So, what did America do? Drop atomic bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, whereupon Emperor Hirohito made his classic acceptance of the Potsdam Declaration demand of Japanese unconditional surrender.

At issue in the increasing tension in the South China Sea is not the legalese in the PCA ruling, nor in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos), nor still in such high legalistic concepts as “archipelgic state” or “international straits” or “freedom of the sea” or “freedom of navigation.” America has been historically known to violate legal restrictions in pushing its geopolitical agenda. Look what it did in Egypt, in Lybia, in Iraq, in Syria. That’s the state of things it could be thinking of doing to the Philippines shortly, as evidenced by the increasing agitation by Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenza for sanctions against China for the so-called Chinese incursions into Philippine waters.

The Lorenzana noise, which began resounding with his publicized clamor for review of the Mutual Defense Treat (MDT) toward the end of last year, has grown louder and increased in tempo and intensity. For instance, he prattles endlessly about Chinese vessels violating Philippine waters, but issues not a hoot about US warships coming and going in the same region.

The recent withdrawal of the United States from the INF Treaty with Russia has made me realize what could be Lorenzana’s real reason for wanting a review of the MDT during this period. Under the terms of the MDT, it is not necessarily given that US may establish nuclear missiles launchers in Philippine military bases, even if under the
Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement US is allowed use of those bases for stationing US personnel and equipment. Adjustments in the terms of the MDT is an imperative to accommodate a recent order by US Defense Secretary Esper to deploy US nuclear missiles in Asia, including the Philippines.

In the end, what will decide the outcome of the South China Sea tension is armed might. Theoretically, it could go either way between US and China, but given China’s great edge over US in cyber technology, which bears greatly on arms capability, China becomes militarily superior to US. This ultimately becomes the Philippines’ great horror.

To questions whether China will attack the Philippines, Victor Corpus says yes if China is attacked first. Given the predilection of the United States to want to deliver the first strike, in an outbreak of hostilities in the South China Sea, China’s first target of counter attack are Philippine military bases where US nuclear missiles are.

Is, then, war the future of Philippines-China relationship?

Exploring the depths of China-Philippines sea row