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The Ultimate Pivot Pricetag: A Luxury Resort on Scarborough Shoal
...With Its Own Floating Nuclear Power Station!
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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…

(Republished from China Matters by permission of author or representative)
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: China, Scarborough Shoal, South China Sea 
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  1. Kiza says:

    If any journalist in the whole of Asia-Pacific (including US) was writing like Peter, then people would be really informed. But no country in the region has any journalist of such caliber. I have this feeling that I need to read only Peter and be fully informed about what is going on. This applies especially to the dirty shenanigans of the US and Japan: do not do what we do then do what we say; the same old same old exceptionalism.

    The World will resemble a jungle and the humans will be just above the lawless animals as long as the US is the dominant country in the World.

  2. Rob89 says:

    For those who wish to know about the Okinotorishima ‘kerfuffle’, in May 2012 “The U.N. Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS) has decided not to adopt Japan’s claim of an outer continental shelf based on Okinotori Atoll, meaning that the country cannot classify the atoll as an island to illegally expand waters under its jurisdiction, (ie a 200 nm EEZ), according to a statement recently published on the website of the United Nations.”

    Has Japan, with the Machiavellian maneuvers of Uncle Sam, managed to overturn that CLCS decision? Does anyone have the answer?

  3. Che Guava says:

    Well said on Okinotori tidal rocks, Mr. Lee.

    However, as Rob89 asks, has the claim actually been recognised?

    Three more points to add.

    The central govt. feigned distance from this by having it run by former Tokyo Governor, Ishihara.

    Rob’s link is a little inaccurate, there were activities to pretend they were islands, but they were failing until the concrete rings, which is why the concrete rings are there.

    For US hypocrisy, the claim about the PRC’s coastguard is pretty rich. In most port towns, the Japan Coastguard boats are patrol boat sized or smaller.

    Having seen a revue of the fleet, there are many frigate and destroyer, even cruiser (or at least very large destroyer) class ships, a surface fleet that in itself, dwarfs any but China’s navy in the region. … and that is the Coastguard, not the naval forces.

    One may be sure that plans and fittings for rapid conversion given the need are in place.

    Not saying it is wrong in itself, just that the US is once again totally hypocrital on that, too.

    • Replies: @Rob89
  4. Rob89 says:
    @Che Guava

    If the U.N. Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS) has recognized the Okinotori tidal rocks as an Island just because “they were failing until the concrete rings, which is why the concrete rings are there” then that sets a paradoxical precedent. Others may follow this charade too.

    The hypocrisy of it all is that the US, Japan, Australia, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia have decided to ignore the fact that the Spratly and Paracel islands have been returned to the Republic of China (Taiwan), under Article 2 of the the Treaty of Peace, signed with Japan on 28 April 1952.

    Taiwan occupies Itu Aba, (by extension by China too, under the one-China policy, recognized by the US, Australia and the 10 Asean nations), and it is the biggest island in the Spratlys, the only one to have fresh water and it has buildings, a harbor, an airport and with many people living on it and yet the UN has not formally recognize it as an island, under Unclos Article 121. Regime of islands:

    ” 1. An island is a naturally formed area of land, surrounded by water, which is above water at high tide.
    2. Except as provided for in paragraph 3, the territorial sea, the contiguous zone, the exclusive economic zone and the continental shelf of an island are determined in accordance with the provisions of this Convention applicable to other land territory.
    3. Rocks which cannot sustain human habitation or economic life of their own shall have no exclusive economic zone or continental shelf. ”

    If Itu Aba is finally recognized as an island with a 200 nm EEZ, then the Philippines’ claims are history, as all the 9 features illegally annexed by President Marcos in 1978, are inconveniently located inside the EEZ of Itu Aba.

    If the Permanent Court of Arbitration at the Hague, does not recognize Itu Aba as an island then it is biased and its ruling in June or July will be null and void.

    As for Japan: “In most port towns, the Japan Coastguard boats are patrol boat sized or smaller”.

    This, too, is unconstitutional as Article 9 of Japan’s Constitution is very clear :

    ” Aspiring sincerely to an international peace based on justice and order, the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as a means of settling international disputes. In order to accomplish the aim of the preceding paragraph, land, sea and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained. The right of belligerency of the state will not be recognized’.

    Under Uncle Sam’s tutelage, Japan today has the 4th biggest military in the world, with the world’s largest cache of plutonium, capable of making 5,000 nuclear bombs. Abe has shredded Article 9, contemptuously, in front of the whole world and yet the Western MSM have not uttered a word to vilify Japan. What hypocrisy !!

    • Replies: @Che Guava
    , @Che Guava
  5. Che Guava says:

    I appreciate your knowledge expressed in your post, some of which I had not been aware.

    However, you may like to more carefully read my posts in reply to Mr. Lee, suspect your reply would have been a little different if you read my post beyond the first line. I’ll check tomorrow night.

    • Replies: @Rob89
  6. woodNfish says:

    How would the US fire any HIMARS missiles at the island when HIMARS are not shipborne?

    • Replies: @Kiza
  7. Kiza says:

    It appears that you are correct about this little detail. HIMARS is a truck mounted missile with a maximum range of 300 km. This makes it impractical for targeting the newly built Chinese islands in SCS, especially because of the propensity of this missile to fail and kill civilians (in Afghanistan). HIMARS is another disastrous Lockheed product (just like F35). It is much more likely that US Navy would use the shipborne Tomahawks cruise missiles to target the islands, especially because they could be launched outside of the range of the Chinese Silkworm land-to-ship missiles.

  8. Rob89 says:
    @Che Guava

    I did not disagree with what you wrote but expanded on it. Our sentiments are the same. If the U.N. Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS) recognizes the Okinotori tidal rocks as an Island, then forget about the rule of law and international norms, touted by the US, which has not even bothered to ratify the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, since it came into force in 1994.

    If Japan can convert two rocks, situated 1,000 miles from its coast, into an island then why can’t other nations do the same?

  9. Karl says:

    in late-breaking (Friday morning in asian newspapers) news, PRC folksinger Song Zuying was sent on a USO-type tour of the various “islands” being disputed.

    She is alleged to be a Rear Admiral in the China Navy Reserves, and she appeared in uniform.

    Source is being quoted as: _China Youth Daily_ publication

    “Bob Hope meets Chinese Restaurant” is what I call it.

  10. Rob89 says:

    Bob hope was priceless. These are some vignettes to remember him by:

    When he was in Danang, Vietnam to entertain the troops, he said to the crowd ” if there is any Vietcong among you, don’t forget, I already had my shots.”

    And when he arrived in Saigon, there was a big crowd and lots of noise underneath his hotel windows. He thought that his fans were out here to greet him but it turned out to be a student demonstration.

    And when he turned 95 he decided to join an exercise class in a gym to keep himself fit but on the first day, by the time he managed to put his leotards on the exercise class was over.

    And when he took his girl friend home after celebrating his 97 birthday, he forgot what he was supposed to do and he fell asleep on the couch.

    Before he passed away at the ripe old age of 100, his daughter asked him where he would like to be interred and his reply was “Surprise me”. What a guy !!

  11. denk says:

    bob hope on marshall island…
    We located the one spot on Earth that hadn’t been touched by the war and blew it to hell,”

    • Replies: @Karl
  12. Karl says:

    >>bob hope on marshall island

    Marshall Islands, unlike the rest of the WestPac, don’t belong to ComSeventhFleet. It belongs to US Army.

    I’ve been there. They had to bring in New York Jews to run the “marshalese” money system, and Filipinos to run everything else. The melanesian race is worse than the africans, which is saying a lot.

  13. Che Guava says:

    More apprecation, Rob. Very good post.

    The Pu cache is a bizarre situation, but I am not sure how safe it is to say it, despite it being obtvious. Of course, the official story is that it is reserve capacity to generate electricity. AFAIK, there are no reactors here designed to run on Pu, except for one that may be in mothballts forever, have seen it from afar, it is a waste that it is mothballed.
    OTOH, the tent towns of homeless, unemployed, and industrious men in mini-towns in major parks in Tokyo have largely vanished.

    Only worked it out about three years ago. They have vanished because they get put up in relatively nice hotels to do work related to Fukushima Number 1 power plant.

    No exclusive rights ceded to Mr. Unz. I think the claim of absolute rights is indefensible and nonsense.

    That said, he has made a very good net forum, so thx., feel free to follow up on what I say, quote, but my words are never your IP.

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