The Buzz

Asia’s New Battlefield: The Philippines’ South China Sea Moment of Truth

A specter is haunting Asia—the specter of full Chinese domination in the South China Sea. Latest reports suggest that China could soon move ahead with building military facilities on the Scarborough Shoal, a contested land feature it has occupied since 2012. This would allow China, according to a Mainland source, to “further perfect” its aerial superiority across the contested waters. By building a sprawling network of dual-purposes facilities, and more recently deploying advanced military assets to its artificially created islands, China is inching closer to establishing a de facto Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) in the area. Integrating the Scarborough Shoal into its burgeoning defensive perimeter across the South China Sea will not only give it an upper hand in the contested waters, but also allow China to place the Philippines’ capital and industrialized regions within its strategic reach.

This is nothing short of a nightmare for the Philippines, which is already struggling to protect its supply lines in the Spratly chain of islands due to growing Chinese military assertiveness in contested waters. Unlike most of Chinese occupied features, which lie well beyond the immediate shores of other claimant states, the Scarborough Shoal is located just about 120 nautical miles off the coast of the Philippines, well within the country’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ)—and also its continental shelf. To put things into perspective, the shoal lies nine hundred kilometers away from the closest Chinese coastline. For Manila, the contested land feature is arguably what James Shoal is to Malaysia and Hainan is to Mainland China.

Manila lost control over the shoal after a tense standoff with Chinese coast guard forces in the middle of 2012. But for more than a century, the Philippines has treated Scarborough Shoal as its northernmost outpost in the South China Sea. In fact, as far back as the Spanish colonial era, the Southeast Asian country has treated the shoal as the natural extension of its national territory. During Cold War years, it was a gunnery range and regular area of naval exercises for American forces, which accessed military bases in the Philippines.

As a leading Filipino maritime-law expert, Jay Batongbacal, explains, it was only after the departure of American military bases (1991) that China began to “take concrete action to assert its long-dormant paper claim to the shoal, beginning with the issuance of amateur-radio licenses to hobbyists in 1994,” the year China wrested control of the Philippine-claimed Mischief Reef. In short, China’s assertion of its (supposedly) historical claim on the land feature was hinged on coldblooded balance-of-power calculations. Cognizant of the Philippines’ minimal-to-nonexistent deterrence capability and the Obama administration’s equivocations on the extent of its defense obligations to Manila, China felt confident enough to usurp control over the shoal.

Meanwhile, the Philippines has been drenched in the ecstasy of presidential elections, with growing indications that the next government could be on a much more friendly footing with China, which giddily expressed its hope that the “new [Philippine] government can adopt positive and well-thought policies towards China, properly deal with relevant disputes, and improve bilateral relations with concrete actions."

Yet it’s far from assured that the next Filipino president will continue the incumbent administration’s alignment with America as well as its tough posturing against China. With the Arbitral Tribunal at The Hague expected to issue its final verdict on the Philippines’ case against China in coming months, the predisposition of the incoming Filipino president has gained greater salience. Above all, however, everyone is wondering about the United States’ next move: Will it stand by its ally and try to prevent China’s prospective militarization of the Scarborough Shoal, or, alternatively, will it continue its futile—if not counterproductive—policy of strategic ambiguity on the issue? Time is of essence.

Tightening Noose