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Is China Planning to Build a Military Base on Scarborough Shoal?

If officials in The Philippines are correct, China could be setting up what may be a ‘game changer’ in the always turbulent South China Sea: some sort of military outpost or base on the hotly contested Scarborough Shoal.

In a piece yesterday for the Wall Street Journal, Philippine officials laid out their fears that Beijing could move at some point in the future to turn the shoal, just 120 miles west of Subic Bay, into some sort of military installation.

At the Journal points out, Scarborough is nearly submerged at high tide.  However, control of what seems to be a bunch of worthless rocks could be invaluable if the area were reclaimed and made much larger, as China has already done in many instances at various reefs and small islands throughout the South China Sea.

The article also notes that “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.”

Philippine officials also seem to suggest such a possible development at Scarborough Shoal could be part of Chinese actions to dominate the South China Sea long term, according to the Journal:  

“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.

Back last week in his office—adorned with Philippine, Chinese, American, Spanish and other maps of the region—Justice Carpio warns that Scarborough Shoal will soon be a site for Chinese island-building and militarization. Pointing to the map propped closest to his desk, he 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.”

Such a base could also provide China with a stronger basis in which to develop the foundations for a future South China Sea Air Defense Identification Zone, or ADIZ, something widely speculated over for some time. 

Harry J. Kazianis is Executive Editor of The National Interest. You can follow him on Twitter: @grecianformula.

Image: Flickr/Steve Webel.