OPINION: Is Scarborough Shoal Next?

Richard Heydarian

Posted at Mar 21 2017 10:01 AM | Updated as of Mar 22 2017 01:31 PM

“We cannot stop China from doing its thing. Even the Americans were not able to stop them,” declared President Rodrigo Duterte in resignation amid serious concerns that China is about to build facilities on the Scarborough Shoal (Panatag).

Just when we thought we got to the bottom of the Benham Rise fiasco, which provoked outright panic among the security establishment and media, it seems the Philippines is heading into another potential crisis with its new best friend, China.

To better understand the situation, there were two major events in previous days to keep in mind.

First, the announcement by Communist Party Secretary Xiao Jie of Sansha City, the prefecture that covers disputed Paracels and Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea, announced that China is set to establish an ‘environmental monitoring station’ in the Scarborough Shoal, which lies just above 100 nautical miles from Philippine shores and the strategic bases in Subic and Clark.

As we have seen in the case of the Spratlys and Paracels, China tends to begin building facts on the ground – namely, turning disputed rocks, atolls and clays into full-fledged military facilities -- by first discussing the establishment of seemingly innocuous facilities like light houses, tourist facilities and marine scientific centers. According to the Chinese line, these are meant for public international goods.

The next thing you know, China has already established the bare bones and skeleton of an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) by building a sprawling network of airstrips and military facilities, equipped with advanced air defense and missile weaponries.

The Scarborough Shoal’s relevance lies in the fact that it is currently the only missing piece in the ‘strategic triangle’, which will allow China to dominate the South China Sea like its domestic lake but with freedom of navigation for international civilian freight, which is crucial to the regional and global economy, but most especially China, which is the world’s largest trading nation.

The second major event was the visit of top Chinese officials to the Philippines. First was Chinese Commerce Minister Zhong Shan, who discussed the establishment of a joint industrial park in the Philippines. Then came Vice-Premier Wang Yang, who carried $6 billion in giveaway gift, covering 30 major projects across all major sectors of the economy. The Chinese strategy is clear: Offer large-scale investment deals and hope this will soften the resistance of smaller countries to Beijing’s maritime and territorial ambitions in it adjacent waters.

The president tried to underscore the impossible dilemma the Philippines finds itself in today: “So what do you want me to do? Declare war against China? I can but we’ll lose all our military and policemen tomorrow, and we are a destroyed nation. And we cannot assert even a single sentence of any provision that we signed.”

Given the above statement, it seems the choice is simply between declaring a suicidal war or, to put it brutally honest, acquiescence. The third option of ‘strategic resistance’ -- the way the South Koreans, Vietnamese, Indonesians and Japanese have been standing up to Chinese maritime assertiveness -- doesn’t seem to be part of the equitation.

At this point, it seems it’s just a matter of time before Scarborough Shoal comes under full control of a foreign power, unless there is a change of heart in Manila – and greater help from allies such as America.

Disclaimer: The views in this blog are those of the blogger and do not necessarily reflect the views of ABS-CBN Corp.