Tensions heat up in the South China Sea by Perry Diaz

The biggest and hottest topic in geopolitical circles today is World War III, or to be more precise… where will World War III start? But if you ask Pope Francis, he’d probably say what he said several months ago: World War III has already begun, at least in a “piecemeal fashion.”

“Piecemeal fashion” is a reference to several crises —or regional wars — in various parts of the world, which could spark a nuclear war that would wipe out mankind. The question is: Where will World War III start? Take your pick: Middle East, Eastern Europe, Baltic Sea, Black Sea, West Africa, East Africa, Central Asia, South Asia, Korean Peninsula, East Asia or South East Asia? It’s anybody’s guess. But for sure, a crisis or war is going on in all these places. Yes, Pope Francis was right: World War III is here.  

Consider the following: The Middle East has several wars going on.  Eastern Europe is about to explode if the civil war in Ukraine is not contained. The Baltic Sea is teeming with Russian and NATO warships loaded with ballistic missiles. And so is the Black Sea. In East Africa, Saudi Arabia is fighting the Houthi rebels in Yemen. In Central Asia, Azerbaijan and Armenia are locked in a deadly stalemate over Nagorno-Karabakh. In South Asia, India and Pakistan are prepared to go to war at the drop of a hat. In the Korean Peninsula, North and South Korea are poised to attack each other for without reason. In West Africa, threats from militant groups such as al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Boko Haram, and ISIS are increasing. In East Asia, Japan and China are in a standoff over a few uninhabited islands called Senkaku (Diaoyu to the Chinese). And in the South China Sea (SCS), Vietnam and the Philippines are locked in territorial disputes with China over the Spratly Islands; Vietnam and China over the Paracel Islands; and the Philippines and China over the Scarborough Shoal.

Territorial disputes

All things considered, the most likely place where war could erupt is the Scarborough Shoal, an uninhabited shoal with a lagoon rich in fish resources. It’s within the Philippines’ 200-mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ), which she claims as her territory since the Spanish colonial period.

But to the Chinese, Scarborough Shoal’s value is its geostrategic location. It did not then come as a surprise when the South China Morning Post reported that China would start reclamation later this year. China did not deny or confirm the report. This alerted U.S. Senator Dan Sullivan to react. He surmised that if China were indeed building an artificial island on Scarborough Shoal, it would complete a “strategic triangle” of bases.

These bases are located in Woody Island in the Paracel archipelago, Spratly Islands, and Scarborough Shoal; thus, giving China control over most of the SCS and the island of Luzon in the Philippines, and Vietnam.

It is interesting to note that the Philippines had signed the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), which allowed the U.S. to rotate military equipment and personnel in existing Philippine bases. To date, five military bases have been identified. Vietnam also signed an agreement allowing the U.S. to preposition equipment for humanitarian responses.

With China’s Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2/AD) strategy already in place, China’s “strategic triangle” would force the U.S. military to operate farther from the SCS. She could then declare an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) over the area.

“Strategic Strait”

Peter Dutton, professor and director of the China Maritime Studies Institute at the U.S. Naval War College, said in a recent speech in London: “The logical conclusion drawn from China’s adding islands in the southern part of the South China Sea with military-sized runways, substantial port facilities, radar platforms and space to accommodate military forces is that China’s objective is to dominate the waters of the South China Sea at will. Building the islands is therefore, in my view, a significant strategic event.” Then he added, “They leave the potential for the South China Sea to become a Chinese strait, rather than an open component of the global maritime commons.” However, he said that China could restrict commercial movement in the area. But the “real problem” is that China could also restrict passage through this “strategic strait” in times of crisis.

If China restricts American passage in the SCS, it could cause innumerable damage to U.S.’s trade and economy. In 2011, $5.3 trillion in trade passed through the SCS, $1.2 trillion of which was tied to the U.S. About 90% of East Asian energy imports pass through the SCS. In 2014, the U.S. exported $79 billion in goods to countries around the SCS, and imported $127 billion from them that same year. It is therefore in the U.S.’s best interest that the SCS should remain open to maritime navigation.

Chinese objective

It is obvious that China wants to end America’s dominance in the SCS; thus, taking full control of the Indo-Asia-Pacific region, economically, militarily, and politically. It will be the end of Pax Americana and the advent of Pax Sinica. And this begs the question: What would the U.S. do in the event that China went ahead with the reclamation of Scarborough Shoal?

With the election of a new U.S. president who will assume office on January 20, 2017, it is impossible to predict how the new American leader would deal with Chinese expansionism in the SCS and beyond. And the lame duck president Barack Obama would more than likely do nothing short of a second-strike nuclear attack in response to a Chinese first-strike against the U.S. or any of her treaty allies in the Indo-Asia-Pacific region.

Treaty obligations

But what if China sent her dredging and hauling equipment to start reclamation of the Scarborough Shoal? What would Obama or his successor do, knowing that what is at stake is America’s pre-eminence as a Pacific power?  While Obama would resort to diplomacy, which would fail as it has in the past seven years, it would be interesting to know what the next president — Republican Donald Trump or Democrat Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders — would do?

Will any of them come to the aid of the Philippines under the U.S.—Philippine Mutual Defence Treaty (MDT) if the Philippines invoked it?  Under the MDT, the U.S. is obligated to protect not only Philippine “metropolitan territory” but also the “island territories” within her jurisdiction. Furthermore, the MDT also obligates the U.S. to defend Philippine “public ships and aircraft” — including military vessels — from armed attack in the Pacific (including the SCS).

In this regard the Scarborough Shoal (then known by its Spanish name, Baja de Masinloc) was part of the Philippine archipelago that was ceded by Spain to the U.S. under the 1898 Treaty of Paris. The 1900 Treaty of Washington clarified that any and all territories administered by Spain are part of the Philippine Islands, even if they were located outside the original Treaty of Paris lines circumscribing the Philippine archipelago. In 1938, the U.S. Department of State recognized that the U.S. had acquired title to the Scarborough Shoal from Spain based on the Treaty of Washington. In 1946, the Scarborough Shoal was one of the territories that the U.S. transferred to the Philippines upon her independence. In 2012, China seized the Scarborough Shoal and declared “indisputable sovereignty” over it.

With the geostrategic value of Scarborough Shoal, the U.S. should — nay, must! — not allow China to militarize it. That would certainly push back American forces to where they were prior to 1898. As tensions heat up in the SCS, one wonders if the U.S. would prevent China — by military means — from building a military base on Scarborough Shoal? If the U.S. uses military force, it is expected that China would respond in kind, which could then trigger World War III. (PerryDiaz@gmail.com)