I’ve been a somewhat skeptical concerning Western handwringing about perceived PRC intentions to islandbuild Scarborough Shoal, seeing them as perhaps pivot-promoting alarmism.
But, as Freud said, sometimes a cigar is a cigar and sometimes a threat to build the shoal is…a threat to build the shoal.
My rethink was prompted by the appearance on a Chinese military enthusiasts’ forum of this plan to convert Scarborough Shoal into a world class tourist destination…
…and, more importantly, a piece by Minnie Chan in the South China Morning Post on April 25, reporting that according to “a source close to the PLA Navy”:
China will start reclamation at the Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea later this year and may add an airstrip to extend its air force’s reach over the contested waters…
SCMP, in Hong Kong, is now owned by Alibaba’s Jack Ma and is not the usual outlet for regional pivot-building scaremongering. And Minnie Chan has been in the China defense-reporting game for a good while, and her sources are PRC and mainland-related, not so much Pentagon or Filipino. So if she’s reporting this, good chance it’s getting floated by the PRC side.
And, if references to Scarborough Shoal island building are turning up in the public sphere, rest assured the PRC had already signaled this gambit to the US government privately. I don’t believe President Obama has to read the South China Morning Post, peruse Bill Gertz, or refresh his Super Camp Military Forum browser tab (the extremely obscure source for the notorious Scarborough reclamation plan image) to find out what deviltry the PRC is promising in the South China Sea.
So the China hawk uproar over Scarborough Shoal island building over the last month has, I suspect, a basis in representations of the PRC government to the US.
As I wrote in Asia Times, floating a Scarborough island-building scheme might seem to be an own-goal by the Chinese, reinforcing the theme of the PRC as an irresponsible, aggressive revisionist power at the same time the PRC Ministry of Foreign Affairs is rather cannily and cleverly cobbling together a narrative that disputes between China and its neighbors are best handled bilaterally.
However, my thesis is that the PRC is concerned that the United States will look for some way to side overtly with the Philippines to enforce its UNCLOS-defined rights after the judgment goes against China, is prepping an escalation pathway to match any US moves, and is carefully signaling what the path might be and where it might end.
I await the judgment of legal scholars, but I wouldn’t be surprised if a) EEZs are under the Philippines’ “jurisdiction” for the purposes of the MDA and therefore b) if Philippine naval/air assets experience interference by China in those EEZs c) even if the encounters are with PRC “white hulls” i.e. maritime patrol vessels (I recall seeing rumblings from the USNWC that the converted frigates in the PRC coast guard should be considered “weaponized” because of the fact of their bulk and, in any case, the frigates still retain a couple sets of anti-aircraft guns) and not the PLAN d) the US can invoke the MDT to intervene to protect Philippine military forces against attack.
Which means that the PRC has to be prepared to escalate its game and plan for the contingency that it will come into direct confrontation with US Navy vessels if it tries to mess with the Philippines.
That doesn’t necessarily mean armed confrontation. Probably more a careful, steplike exercise in “hassling” by the PRC.
Moves up the escalation stepladder could involve close approaching, impeding, and then jostling US Navy ships FONOPing alone or participating in Philippine military escorts of fishing and oil exploration vessels seeking to exploit the EEZ claims validated by UNCLOS.
There is an existing playbook for this sort of harassment. Interested readers and fans of 1990s arena rock are welcome to view this video showing a Soviet naval vessel bumping a US Navy vessel during a FONOP in the Black Sea. If all goes according to plan, the foreign boat approaches with its crew on deck wearing life jackets, the officers gather at a suitable vantage point to stare meaningfully at their opposite numbers on the US ship, the helm is given a healthy jerk, the fender-bender is applied, and the caravan moves on.
And if these moves prove ineffective, indeed are welcomed by the US hawks as a welcome escalation in tensions that build the case for the pivot, the PRC tit-for-tat could culminate in…
…the appearance of a luxury resort on Scarborough Shoal!
In other words:
Which is, in my opinion, what the apparent PRC threats of island building at Scarborough Shoal are all about.
For those of you who don’t obsessively follow and memorize China Matters, Okinotorishima is the secret shame of UNCLOS and the Achilles’ heel of US pivot policy. I guess that’s why you don’t hear too much about it in the western press.
A full airing here, but Okinotorishima was a Japanese stunt that took two rocks—an even smaller above surface holding than Scarborough Shoal—poured in more than half a billion dollars to cofferdam and reinforce them…
…and claimed a 200 nautical mile EEZ around them.
As far as I can tell, the reason Japan was able to declare a 200 mile EEZ around this island-building excrescence is because it’s out in the middle of the ocean and there were no surrounding countries that could claim injury. Although the PRC and South Korea both voiced objections to UNCLOS, they apparently went nowhere.
The idea that the PRC would island-build Scarborough Shoal in order to extend a military threat to Luzon is, to my mind, idiotic.
In my opinion, the only reason this argument is advanced is to raise a “Red Dragon Loose in SCS” military threat ruckus to obscure the unpleasant fact that there is no effective way to challenge PRC sovereignty claims or legal way to prevent it from building whatever it wants on Scarborough Shoal.
Imputing a threat to US forces in the Philippines from the PRC on Scarborough Shoal, on the other hand, allows these pesky diplomatic/legal inconveniences to be swept aside by executive order on grounds of national security.
The superior PRC dodge would be to build an ostensibly civilian outpost at Scarborough per the leaked plan (“Hotel”, “Tropical Travel & Holiday Area”, maybe a casino to really cheese off the Philippines),i.e. non-military along the lines of Okinotorishima (which has a helicopter pad but is plausibly 100% civilian).
PRC news reports also added an extra wrinkle with reports of plans for floating nuclear power stations in the SCS and also Bohai Bay.
To my mind, this prospect is appalling enough that the pivot into the South China Sea should be jettisoned immediately for negotiations to keep nukes out of the SCS, but that’s just me.
In the context of the US-PRC competition in the SCS, unfortunately, a floating nuclear station next to Scarborough Shoal makes a lot of sense. It would provide desalinization and power generation capabilities that affirm the habitability of the island (supporting claims for 200 nautical mile EEZ), would help the island withstand a US-led blockade, and by its presence would make the US think twice about firing a few dozen HIMARS missiles at the island to flatten it.
Plunking an Okinotorishima clone in the South China Sea, nuclear or not, would confound pivot planners with the dilemma of either conceding the legitimacy of the faux-island and its EEZ claims (200 nautical miles would be a completely unviable option given the proximity of Scarborough to Luzon, but the island might very well rate a good deal more than the 12 nautical miles it’s currently expected to get) or suggesting that the Japanese ditch their $500 billion plus investment for the sake of consistency and pivot credibility…
…that’s the kind of price tag that might get the pivot’s attention…