MANILA – Former National Security Adviser Roilo Golez believes the completion of a Chinese military installation near Mabini Reef inside the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ) could be a game-changer not just for the Philippines but the whole Asia-Pacific region.
Speaking to ANC’s Headstart, Golez said China, as the world’s second largest economy, can afford to construct an artificial island near Fiery Cross Reef complete with a 5-square-kilometer military base.
Online news site Qianzhan.com earlier said the estimated construction cost of the base is $5 billion.
Golez said China has always followed a pattern of first constructing temporary shelters for fishermen in disputed areas before converting them to concrete structures and garrisons, which is what happened in Mischief Reef.
"It is probably a mile-long airstrip surrounded by… it is almost like an airport. It has support facilities. There is a dock for ships. It can support and resupply frigates. But what is very threatening is the mile-long strip because now they can base their fighters there. I am looking at the J-11 fighter made in China that has a range of 2,000 miles," he said.
"This is going to be a game changer. It is going to be an airstrip. That is their plan and they can position their fighters there," he added.
The former Parañaque representative that if the military base is completed, Chinese jets can easily reach the entire Philippines, Vietnam and parts of Malaysia within the base's 1,000-mile radius.
"The Mabini reef is the dot in the middle. The circle is the 1,000 mile radius. You can see it encompasses the entire Philippines and practically the entire Vietnam, part of Malaysia, part of the whole of Borneo. It can threaten all our vital economic installations and this is the most awesome, our vital military installations including what would be the installations we can make available at the EDCA [Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement]," he said.
"In 2-3 years’ time, it will be the virtual unsinkable aircraft carrier," he added.
Golez said China’s move could be seen as a way to consolidate Beijing’s power in the South China Sea "and convert that into their lake."
"They want to really entrench themselves and strengthen their claims, their so-called 9-dash claim. This is balance of power. They want to alter the balance of power in the Asia-Pacific area because the dominant power until now is the US. It is the hegemon, not only in the world but also here and China is challenging that…,” he said.
The Philippines is currently locked in a bitter territorial dispute with China over the West Philippine Sea, which is within the country’s EEZ.
In 1995, the Philippines discovered that China had occupied and built structures in Mischief Reef, which is about 230 kilometers from Palawan. In 2012, China also occupied Scarborough Shoal, a coral reef off the coast of Zambales.
The Philippines has filed a petition before an international arbitral tribunal to nullify China's claim to almost the entire South China Sea. The country has also accused Beijing of violating the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties, which warns against increasing tensions in the disputed waters.
CHANGING THE FACTS ON THE GROUND
Prof. Richard Javad Heydarian, a lecturer on international relations at Ateneo De Manila University (ADMU), said the latest construction comes as no surprise since China has been building structures in the South China Sea since the American troops left in 1992.
He said the People's Republic of China also took over the Paracel Islands in Vietnam after a withdrawal of military support in the area in the 1970s.
"This should come as no surprise. In fact, in end 2012, the defense minister of China said they elevated the so called Sansha City in the Northern Paracel portion to prefecture level…This is part of a game plan that China has been laying down since the 1970s. So what the US privot is all about is to make sure that they put a marker and tell China, enough is enough. Because it is very clear that China is sensitive to balance of power dynamics. Once the great powers withdraw, China gets more aggressive," he said.
There is also a legal dimension to China's move to build installations and create artificial structures in the disputed territories. Heydarian said that because of the multiple claims on the territories, China will have to face the legal opinion of arbitration down the road.
What it is doing, however, is to build structures and project another 200-mile EEZ on these structures by arguing legally that they have continuous exercise of sovereignty.
"Although the Spratly islands are far away from the Hainan coast of China, they are within the 200 nautical miles of other features that they control in the South China Sea. There is a legal dimension there. They are basically changing facts on the ground. Let’s be very clear about the UNCLOS [United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea]. Within the 200 nautical miles EEZ, you don’t have automatic jurisdiction and control…In fact, the law talks about compromise and discussion but once the Chinese establish effective sovereignty, they will also be able to argue the legal opinion that they are really the owners of this,” Heydarian said.
Golez said he subscribes to the opinion of Supreme Court Justice Antonio Carpio on the UNCLOS. He said Carpio noted that under UNCLOS, "you cannot convert a feature like a reef or a shoal into an island just because you have the construction capability."
"Otherwise, you will have a big contest there, a construction competition," he said.
Golez, however, said that even without the EEZ, the mere construction of the base projects a position of power.
"That means that airstrip is going to be there. It is going to be about 130 nautical miles from us. Its planes will operate way beyond our territory. It projects power and it has awesome deterrence implications as far as we are concerned," he said.
Another reason raised for China's aggressiveness in the South China Sea is energy security.
China is currently importing a lot of hydrocarbon from the Middle East, Heydarian said, which passes through a lot of “chokepoints” or countries that are either sympathetic or are known allies of the US.
He said that in the event of a conflict between China and the United States or Japan, those countries could "close off those chokepoints and affect the Chinese economy."
To combat this, he said China is creating a "reverse string of pearls" – first by building more bases and then buying stakes in privately owned ports in Singapore, the Middle East, Greece, Belgium and the Panama Canal.
"Given how the Chinese government really relies on economic performance for its legitimacy, that would have tremendous political implications at home. What the Chinese are looking at is to have their own level of control of the flow of commodities," he said.
Golez said there is also fear that China would impose an air defense identification zone (ADIZ) in the South China Sea, particularly in areas where Chinese structures are located.
He said China’s declaration of an ADIZ in the East Chinese Sea was met with protests by Australia and Japan. The US also sent two B-52 bombers to the area, he noted.
The difference with China’s ADIZ, according to Heydarian, is that it imposes restrictions even in the transport of military aircraft.
He said the US pivot to Asia and the signing of the EDCA is part and parcel of the US strategy to prevent the imposition of an ADIZ in the South China Sea.
COALITION AGAINST CHINA
One result of China’s aggressive foreign policy style, according to Golez, is the creation of a coalition of countries actively denouncing China’s moves to control the disputed territory.
On one hand, he said Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had already called for a “diamond alliance” between the US, Australia, India and Japan. Australia and South Korea have also deepened inter-operability issues with the US.
He said India has also emerged as a player in the South China Sea conflict because of the country’s oil exploration deal with Vietnam. He said China’s move to send an oil rig in the disputed territory was meant to preempt that joint venture.
Heydarian said Vietnam’s move to follow the Philippines’ lead and file multiple arbitration cases against China has put Beijing aback. This is after Beijing sent a $1 million, state-of-the-art oil rig in waters claimed by Vietnam.
The professor said Beijing's move has stoked anti-Chinese sentiment in Vietnam.
"What is the significance? Vietnam has always been quiet about bilateral relations. Vietnam was very quiet because they were trying to forge their own bilateral agreement with China over disputes in the northern portion of their country. Now the Chinese, by picking on Vietnam, is basically saying: 'Even if you are quiet, we are still going to be aggressive against you.'
"This is why there is a clear change in the language of the Vietnamese. They have become more aggressive and they want to file multiple cases. So this was a diplomatic setback for the Chinese. What the Chinese didn’t foresee and the Vietnamese didn’t foresee is how the anti-Chinese sentiment could explode into such huge destruction of foreign-owned investments," he said.
Heydarian said the situation in China has evolved into minilateralism instead of multilateralism.
"Everyone was waiting for the US to say something, for ASEAN to say something about it but the fact of the matter is, what is evolving in recent years is not multilateralism- the consensus-driven ASEAN, but minilateralism, meaning like-minded countries coming together, flexible on the formal level, focusing only on specific issues," he said.
The professor said there is also pressure on US President Barack Obama to be a guarantor of stability in the region.
"The credibility is a big, big issue for the US. It is not just the Philippines but this is about what signal you send - to other allies like Australia and Japan but more importantly the fence sitters such as Malaysia. Depending on how US proves its credibility, it will swing to one superpower or another," he said.