WHY FIGHT OVER SOME SMALL ROCKS IN THE MIDDLE OF THE OCEAN?
Roilo Golez, 3 April 2014
I am saddened, nay, shocked, when some ask the question, “Why fight over small rocks in the middle of the ocean?” when referring to the West Philippine Sea situation now approaching boiling point. To some, Mischief Reef, Scarborough Shoal, Pag-Asa, and now, Ayungin Shoal, are small rocks not worth fighting over.
I don’t know if such comments are driven by naiveté’ about geopolitics and warfare or just dictated by their plain desire to preserve the status quo because the status quo for them means:
1. Peace at all cost in the face of a rising China or
2. An ideologically based intestinal interlock with China or
3. Fear, not wanting to antagonize the dragon for fear of being devoured.
In warfare and geopolitics, the potential force of a territory is not necessarily proportionate to the size of that territory. It is the location that determines how much potential and, in the end, kinetic force can be brought to bear from that territory.
In other words, how well one can project power, gain access to a bigger objective or, conversely, prevent access or deny access using that piece of territory, however small.
We should learn from history. Note how the Pacific War was won using tiny atolls, rocks, islets, with names like Truk, Tulagi, Saipan, Kwajalein Atoll, Tarawa Atoll, etc., dotting the vast Pacific Ocean as shown by this map:
That was the West Pacific area in 1941-1944.
Now we are looking at a smaller part of the West Pacific: The South China Sea.
The South China Sea today is considered by all strategic think tanks as the convergence point of the world’s three most powerful economic powers: The United States, China and Japan. Add to that India, Australia, South Korea and Indonesia. Then the minor powers that are now joining the arms race: Vietnam and the Philippines. In the periphery, her intentions unclear, is Russia. It is without doubt the convergence point of the greatest powers, in absolute and relative terms, in the history of mankind.
Note the strategic location of the Philippines in the South China Sea theatre. The Philippines is athwart the eastern periphery of the South China Sea. As such, every speck of Philippine territory is strategic in peace and in conflict.
China is fanning the flame of conflict with its nine-dash line, which only China respects and the rest dismisses as irrational and without legal and historical basis. And the Philippines has assumed center stage with China’s brazen grab, using raw, naked power, of Mischief Reef in 1995 and Scarborough Shoal in 2012. And now they are positioning to grab Ayungin Shoal as well. These territorial claims defy Common Sense, as shown by the following map, those “rocks” being way within the Philippine EEZ and so distant from the Chinese mainland.
Those who dismiss Scarborough Shoal as just small rocks in the middle of the ocean do not or refuse to appreciate the Shoal’s strategic importance. It is only around 120 nautical miles from the shores of Zambales and so close to the country’s vital economic and military installations: Subic, Clark, Metro Manila, primary airports and sea ports, power plants, Calabarzon and our Army, Navy and Air Force bases.
Scarborough is not small. Including the huge lagoon inside, it has an area of 150 square kilometers, almost the size of Quezon City With little engineering works, its channel can be widened and deepened to make the lagoon accessible to navy ships. The lagoon’s depth is sufficient for China’s destroyers. A country with advanced construction capability and financial muscle can transform this into a naval base. One can easily visualize how many ships can be anchored in a lagoon almost the size of Quezon City.
Converted into a naval installation, Scarborough Shoal can be used to project power and monitor strategic and tactical communications of the Philippine government, the military bases, including the assets of our treaty ally, the US, once the rotational bases access agreement is made operational.
Missiles can be installed in Scarborough Shoal that can reach in just a few minutes targets in Central Luzon, Metro Manila and Southern Tagalog.
Under the control of China and once militarized, Scarborough Shoal could be transformed into an unsinkable aircraft carrier permanently parked in our front yard, well within our EEZ.
If anyone doubts the convertibility of Scarborough Shoal for military purposes, consider this: More than 60 years ago, the US Navy converted a similar atoll around 1,200 miles from the Philippines into a staging area for the invasion of the Philippines. This was the Ulithi Atoll, with features similar to Scarborough, only around four times bigger.
Here’s Ulithi Atoll:
Just some small rocks in the middle of the ocean, but transformed to house part of Admiral Halsey’s huge Third Fleet that was the vanguard in the invasion of Japan-occupied Philippines in 1944.
This was how Ulithi looked on the eve of the Battle of Leyte Gulf:
Note the carriers and battleships and cruisers and destroyers anchored among those “small rocks.”
In a small way, the same is true in considering the strategic potential of Ayungin and Mischief Reef and what I predict is a power play to have more Chinese military installations in the area to project power and as a counterfoil against future enhanced bases in the Palawan area for use by the AFP and our treaty ally, and as China's staging area to grab the oil-rich Recto Bank with its reputed 5 billion barrels of oil and 55 tcf of natural gas.
Why fight over small rocks? Now we know.
Now, the January 6, 2015 article "Maginot Line in the South China Sea" in the NextBigFUTURE blog, states:
"A mature network of military facilities in the Spratlys, including an expanded Fiery Cross presence, would effectively extend China’s ability to project power by over 800 kilometers (500 miles), particularly through Chinese Coast Guard patrols in contested areas and potentially even air operations. Similar to its relative economic supremacy, China’s relative advantages in military size, modernization, and professionalism suggest that it is the only South China Sea claimant that is potentially capable of establishing de facto air and sea denial over tiny islet networks in a maritime setting as vast as the Spratly archipelago."
"Infrastructure improvements are enhancing China’s ability to sustain its naval and maritime law enforcement presence in the South China Sea. This is particularly the case at Fiery Cross Reef, where a five-square mile project has been under construction intermittently since 1988. According to IHS Jane’s, Chinese facilities there serve as ‘‘base’’ for conducting land reclamation projects elsewhere in the Spratly Islands and host communications equipment, a greenhouse, a wharf, a helipad, and coastal artillery. Andrew S. Erickson, associate professor at the U.S. Naval War College, and Austin M. Strange, PhD student at Harvard University, suggest Fiery Cross Reef could eventually sustain a PLA Navy command and control center twice the size of Diego Garcia, a U.S. naval base in the Indian Ocean. China also appears to be constructing an airstrip at Johnson South Reef.
"China in 2014 made significant progress on various land reclamation projects on Johnson South Reef, Johnson North Reef, Cuateron Reef, Gaven Reef, and Fiery Cross Reef, all of which are Chinese-controlled outposts in the disputed Spratly Islands. In addition to dredging sand to make islands where there previously were none, China appears to be expanding and upgrading military and civilian infrastructure—including radars, satellite communication equipment, antiaircraft and naval guns, helipads, and docks—on some of the islands"
"China is building an island at least 3,000 meter long on Fiery Cross Reef that could be the site for its first airstrip in the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea.
"Satellite imagery of the island taken on 8 August and 14 November shows that in the past three months Chinese dredgers have created a land mass that is almost the entire length of the reef.
"Fiery Cross Reef lies to the west of the main Spratly island archipelago and was previously under water; the only habitable area was a concrete platform built and maintained by China's People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN).
"The new island is more than 3,000 m long and between 200 and 300 meter wide: large enough to construct a runway and apron. The dredgers are also creating a harbour to the east of the reef that would appear to be large enough to receive tankers and major surface combatants.
"The land reclamation at Fiery Cross is the fourth such project undertaken by China in the Spratly Islands in the last 12-18 months and by far the largest in scope. China has built new islands at Johnson South Reef, Cuateron Reef, and Gaven Reefs, but none are large enough to house an airstrip in their current form."