China risks isolation if it occupies Spratlys

by Jojo Malig,

Posted at Jul 18 2012 10:43 PM | Updated as of Jul 19 2012 08:48 AM

View Spratly Islands in a larger map

First of a 2-part report

MANILA, Philippines - China risks being a pariah in the global community if it attacks other countries claiming parts of the disputed Spratly Islands, an analyst warned on Wednesday.

Greg Poling, research associate of the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Strategic and International Studies' Southeast Asia Program, said  Beijing's military ambitions in the region are held back by its economic, diplomatic, and political interests overseas.

"From the Chinese perspective, Beijing knows that it could easily occupy every disputed feature in the South China Sea, but it cannot do so without causing wide and probably irrevocable damage to its interests abroad," Poling told

"China would be rightfully seen as the aggressor in such a situation, as well as in violation of its own multilateral and bilateral treaty obligations," he said. "Any hopes of China being seen as a responsible member of the international community or a benign rising power would go out the window."

"As long as aggression was limited to the Spratlys themselves, outside powers would be unlikely to intervene militarily, but China would find itself isolated and almost necessarily in the midst of a new Cold War as the United States and its partners both in the Asia Pacific and Europe would fear future Chinese aggression," Poling added.

He said that although there is little chance of a full-scale shooting war between China and the Philippines or Vietnam, "small-scale skirmishes are not out of the question."

Johnson Reef clash

Vietnam and China have engaged in such armed naval skirmishes in the past years, including a deadly battle in waters near Johnson Reef and Fiery Cross Reef in 1988.

More than 70 Vietnamese troops were killed while 2 of their ships were sunk and another was heavily damaged in the skirmish.

It resulted in China gaining control of the Johnson South Reef, which the Philippines calls Mabini Reef.

Dr. Richard Cronin, senior associate and director of the Henry Stimson Center's Southeast Asia Program, told the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission that the deadly outcome of the naval battle was the reason why the Philippine Navy decided to avoid a confrontation with the Chinese People's Liberation Army Navy when the latter occupied Mischief Reef in 1994.

Poling said the Philippines and Vietnam are avoiding taking the People's Liberation Army head-on into open conflict over incidents in the Spratlys and the Paracels. "The United States, as a treaty ally of the Philippines, also has a stake in pushing all sides to avoid a shooting war," he said.

He said other countries should not also immediately jump to conclusions regarding China’s naval intentions in the region.

"Clearly, maneuvering warships and the like through the South China Sea intentionally sends a message to the other claimants. And naval maneuvers by China have increased in recent years. That said, there is nothing in international law to forbid China from operating warships within 60 nautical miles of anyone’s coast (as long as they are farther than 12 nautical miles, which is the limit of territorial waters)," he said.

Scarborough standoff

Poling cited the Scarborough Shoal standoff, which he believes was caused by the Philippines sending a military, instead of a Coast Guard patrol vessel to the area.

"China has been careful to avoid militarizing the disputes by using its civil, not naval, ships in confrontations like Scarborough. It was the Philippines that chose to send its naval flagship to perform the purely civilian job of interdicting illegal fishermen at Scarborough," he said.

"Beijing still chose to respond with its civilian agencies. If there is a message in that, it is that China does not need to use its naval forces to throw its weight around in the region," he told

He said what the Philippines "cannot afford is another Scarborough Shoal" (standoff).

"If that incident proved anything, it is that the Philippines is in no position to confront China’s civilian maritime forces, much less its naval forces (which we should keep in mind played no part at Scarborough)," Poling said.

"The Philippines should, and is, seeking to upgrade its maritime awareness capabilities and its civilian and naval assets in the long run. But in the short-term, it will have to rely on bilateral diplomacy to manage incidents with China, and seek some sort of united front with most, if not all, of its ASEAN counterparts to counter China’s intimidation tactics," he added.

More Chinese fishermen in Spratlys

Poling said the Philippines should expect that increased activity of Chinese fishing vessels in the disputed waters will continue to remain a source of tension.

"As fishing grounds near China become depleted, fishermen from Hainan and throughout southern China are traveling farther afield," he said.

"This is only being promoted by Beijing, which is rumored to be paying fishermen on Hainan to fish in the Spratlys, where it would be unprofitable to operate if not for government payouts," he added.

"This is growing even more dangerous as China’s various civilian maritime agencies seem determined to protect their fishermen’s access to all part of the South China Sea with whatever means are necessary. All this means we can expect fishing confrontations, which were already regular occurrences, to become even more frequent and more public," Poling said.

"Clearly the Philippines will not stop patrolling the waters it considers its own. The result is probably going to be frequent diplomatic spats between the two sides," he said. "This has been the status quo in the Paracels for decades, with China arresting Vietnamese fishermen with regularity, Vietnam protesting, and a diplomatic solution being found."

In part 2: How the Philippines, ASEAN can beat China in its own game