NEW YORK – Surround a disputed area with all types of ships, enclose it like a cabbage and hold on to it.
That’s the so-called cabbage strategy that China is employing to stake its maritime territorial claims, and a ranking Chinese military officer says his country should take more disputed territory from the Philippines, The New York Times Magazine has reported.
Quoting Maj. Gen. Zhang Zhaozhong of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army, the Sunday magazine cover article said China began taking measures “to seal and control” areas around Panatag or Scarborough Shoal, which the Chinese call the Huangyan Islands, following a standoff with the Philippines last year.
The magazine article, quoting Zhang, reported that the cabbage strategy involved “surrounding a contested area with so many boats – fishermen, fishing administration ships, marine surveillance ships, navy warships.” The island “is thus wrapped layer by layer like a cabbage,” Zhang reportedly said in a television interview given in May.
In the story entitled “A Sea of Trouble,” with the second heading “A Game of Shark and Minnow,” the NYT described the old, rusting Sierra Madre ship that the Philippine government ran aground on Ayungin Shoal in 1999 as an unlikely battleground in a geopolitical struggle that will shape the future of the South China Sea and, to some extent, the rest of the world.
The magazine said it was hard to imagine how anyone could live in the Sierra Madre or how such a forsaken place could become a flash point in a geopolitical power struggle.
“There is no question” that the cabbage strategy is now being employed in Ayungin, called Ren’ai Shoal by the Chinese, the NYT reported.
Commenting on taking territory from the Philippines, the NYT quoted Zhang as saying, “We should do more such things in the future. For those small islands, only a few troopers are able to station on each of them, but there is no food or even drinking water there. If we carry out the cabbage strategy, you will not be able to send food and drinking water onto the islands. Without the supply for one or two weeks, the troopers stationed there will leave the islands on their own. Once they have left, they will never be able to come back.”
Eight Filipino Marines struggling to survive mental and physical desolation call the rust bucket home. They are lightly armed and freely admit they will surrender if Chinese Coast Guard cutters on either side of them make a move to capture the Sierra Madre, formerly the USS Harnett County, a tank-landing ship in World War II.
The magazine article written by Jeff Himmelman with photographs by Ashley Gilbertson details the daily routine of the Marines, including 2nd Lt. Charlie Claro, 29, commander of the outpost, Staff Sgt. Joey Loresto, Sgt. Roy Yanto and Pfc Michael Navata.
Himmelman and Gilbertson along with Mayor Eugenio Bito-onon Jr., whose Kalayan Island Group constituency includes most of the Philippine land claims in the South China Sea, visited the Sierra Madre for five days in August.
They were aboard a fishing boat and the Chinese cutters made no move to stop them.
Ayungin is part of the hundreds of other desolate reefs, islands, rock clusters and cays that collectively are called Spratly Islands. The Spratly island group sprawls over 160,000 square miles in the waters off the coasts of the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, Vietnam, Taiwan and China.
The US Energy Information Administration estimates the seabed beneath the Spratlys may hold up to 5.4 b billion barrels of oil and 55.1 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, much of it concentrated in Reed Bank, a large submerged atoll at the northern edge of the islands. The waters in the area also contain some of the richest fisheries in the world.
China claims sovereignty over most of the island groups and other land formations in the South China Sea encompassed by its so-called “nine-dash line” boundary – claims disputed in whole or in part by the Philippines, Brunei, Vietnam, Malaysia and Taiwan.
The magazine said China’s behavior as it becomes more powerful, along with freedom of navigation and control over South China Sea shipping lanes, will be among the major global political issues of the 21st century.
The eight Filipino Marines on the Sierra Madre spend their time playing cards, fishing, spearfishing, watching movies on DVD players and swimming. They also have a small TV with satellite connection but it stays on for only five minutes at a time.
The Kalayan Island Group technically encompasses most of the Spratlys, but in reality amounts to five islands, two sandbars and two reefs that the Philippines currently controls, including Ayungin and Lawak 60 miles to the north. Both serve as a strategic gateway to the rich oil and gas reserves of the Reed Bank, within the Philippines’ 200-mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ).
The mayor has 288 voting constituents of whom about 120 live at any one time on Pag-asa, the only island with a civilian population.
The Marines on the Sierra Madre see the Chinese boats as a source more of mystery than fear, the NYT reported.
Bito-onon said the Chinese could come and take Ayungin at any time and the Marines would simply surrender.
The article said the Philippines’ best hope for resisting China currently hinges on the efforts of American lawyer Paul Reichler, who specializes in international territorial disputes.
The Philippines challenged China’s claim to most of the South China Sea before an arbitral tribunal of the United Nations and hired Reichler to argue its case.
The case initiated in January seeks to invalidate China’s nine-dash line and establish that the territorial rights be governed by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. The subtleties of the case revolve around EEZs and continental shelves without expressly resolving sovereignty issues.
Reichler told Himmelman Ayungin will be part of the case now.
Reichler is hoping the tribunal will define Ayungin as a “submerged feature” – meaning it is considered part of the seabed and belongs to whoever owns the continental shelf underneath it, not to whoever happens to be occupying it.
An arbitration outcome unfavorable to the Chinese would create some public perception problems for them, but China is unlikely to be deterred, in part because there is no enforcement mechanism, the magazine said.
“The entire world has an interest in the South China Sea, but China has nearly 1.4 billion mouths and a growing appetite for nationalism to feed, which is a kind of pressure that no other country can understand,” it added.