This is a sequel to a recent article “A PH-Japan Defence Treaty”. The way China has invested billions of dollars and achieved rapid militarization of three reefs in the Spratleys in just two years implies that they are there to stay. Lately, they issued a warning to the US that if they tried to stop the construction, “there will be war”. China needs oil badly, without which a slow-down of its economic growth may trigger a mammoth recession. They know there is oil in the Spratelys, otherwise they would not risk billions of dollars and war for it. To extract oil, China needs military security. Without militarization in a volatile place claimed by everyone, extraction can be disrupted.
A US Poseidon P8 surveillance plane, which is called a ‘submarine hunter’, has recently reported, in spite of eight warnings from China, continuous dredging that has reclaimed 2,000 acres from the sea at the Fiery Cross Reef, military barracks, piers at a staggering 300 meters depth, and search radars. A commercial plane was similarly warned to move away. It is not known if the P8 came from Clark Air Base. (Source: CNN-2015/05/20)
The US may hesitate to confront China’s militarization of the Spratleys reefs, but if China closes the Taiwan Straits, that will disrupt vital shipping lanes, it is the turn of the US to say “there will be war”. Japan will also go to war because most of their precious imported oil passes through the Taiwan Strait. Remember that when Egypt tried to close the Suez, a vital shipping lane, the US and Britain were quick to move in.
What would make China close the Taiwan Strait? For one, regaining Taiwan is an obsession. For another, even if that is too risky to go to war over, if there is a military confrontation within a 1,000-kilometer radius, which includes the Spratleys, closing the Taiwan Strait chokepoint would secure attacks against the China mainland. It will take 24 hours for China to close the Taiwan Strait. They will simply scatter thousands of bombs across the strait.
Right now, the US and Japan are working feverishly to install a defence system over the Luzon Strait, just in case the Taiwan Strait is closed. But the proximity of this defence system, centered mainly on Batanes, to the China mainland is dangerous in a confrontation. It can easily be a target of pre-emptive strikes from China.
China has ‘asymmetric weapons’
The potential for a confrontation in the Spratleys is there. US spy planes have defied China’s warnings to stay away. Chinese warplanes have threatened even commercial flights to stay away. The Eagle and the Bear have been playing footsy for the last decade, daring and defying each other, testing the waters, employing brinkmanship. One false move, one trigger happy pilot can actually, in theory, trigger World War III in the blink of an eye, before it hits the papers. China knows its navy is vastly inferior but their weapons program have come up with key ‘asymmetric weapons’, meaning cheap but high-tech easy-to-build arsenals such as missiles which can take out carrier fleets, a slingshot against the Goliath, a critical equalizer against a superior foe.
The looming US-China confrontation in the Asia Pacific is an energy war for China. For the US, it is an economic war, the grapple to maintain its trading partners, such as South Korea, Japan, Vietnam, the Philippines, etc. America wants a piece of the Asian-economy pie, which has the fastest growth rate currently as Europe is on a decline. Thus, the US grand plan, using its Pivot to Asia, which will shift 70% of its naval forces to the Asia Pacific, is to ‘encircle’ and isolate its economic rival, China.
When will war happen?
The answer to ‘when’ a war will break out lies in these considerations. It can happen tomorrow or within a decade. Nobody really knows. The protagonists are not willing to rock the boat for now. The stakes are too high. It is the level of despair that will trigger war, such as an energy crisis in China, or an American economic meltdown.
The way President Aquino has been rattling his sabre, knowing the Americans are behind him, may actually be a good or a bad geopolitical move. We may be putting ourselves in the middle of a deadly confrontation of giants, whose outcome is unpredictable. Will the US step in if China massacres Filipinos in the Spratleys? Not necessarily. It depends on American interests, which is the basis of its decisions, not Philippine interests. If China destroys the Seventh Fleet somehow, will Subic and Clark bear the brunt of a retaliation? The US has reportedly been using Clark Field lately in its surveillance of the Spratleys. We are in the middle of it all. Like in the movies, if you are caught, I disavow any relationship with you.
(The author is a senior columnist of this paper and of other Philippine newspapers in the last 20 years, a radio-TV broadcaster, a documentary producer-director, and a former professor at Ateneo de Manila University.)