The Philippines faces a very serious security challenge in two fronts and how it plays out could critically affect the balance of power in the Asia Pacific Region and beyond
Philippine National Security Adviser (2001-2004)
The Philippines faces a very serious security challenge in two fronts and how it plays out could critically affect the balance of power in the Asia Pacific Region and beyond.
Since 2012, the focus of strategic analysts has been Scarborough Shoal in the West of the Philippines. China seized Scarborough Shoal in 2012 and there have been speculations on when China would militarize Scarborough Shoal just like what it has done in Mischief Reef inside the Philippine Exclusive Economic Zone, Fiery Cross Reef, Subi Reef, etc. and much earlier, the Paracels.
Then last month, March 9, 2017, Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana officially announced his department had sighted a Chinese survey ship that stayed for more than three months in Benham Rise, a 13 million hectare extended continental shelf awarded to the Philippines in April 2012. I consider the visit of the Chinese survey ship a threat to Philippine security.
I have long monitored the two areas and have looked at them as major security concerns because of their location and physical features for geosecurity and geo-strategic purposes.
Scarborough Shoal In Transition
In December 1999, when our country was focused on what the Chinese were building in Mischief Reef, I delivered a speech in Congress and predicted that China was aiming at seizing Scarborough Shoal. I arrived at that conclusion after studying China’s move from Fiery Cross Reef, and other reefs, then their building in Mischief Reef what appeared to be temporary structure on stilts then later permanent concrete structures.
It was our team with US Congressman Rohrabacher that first flew over Mischief Reef in 1999 and saw for ourselves that they were building permanent structures which we later announced in a formal press conference in Congress.
followed that with my privilege speech in Congress on December 7, 1999 fearlessly projecting that China was aiming at seizing Scarborough Shoal. This were my words that day (http://roilogolez.blogspot.com/2013/08/privilege-speech-dec-7-1999-privilege.html):
“Scarborough Shoal is part of China’s military projection at the South China Sea.
“In Scarborough Shoal, China has found a perfect forward fortress at the east to back up its slow but nonstop political and naval march towards the north, where there are Korea, Japan, Taiwan, among others. China has unleashed a blob at the South China Sea, floating eastward, growing slowly, menacingly, nearly unopposed, devouring every speck, every shoal and reef along the way.
Chinese military contingents are already positioned in various reefs, islets, and rocks of the South China Sea Region, particularly in the Spratlys and the Paracels. Scarborough Shoal is just one more step forward in their bid to secure full control of the world’s second busiest international sea lane.
My speech did not get much attention and I was dismissed as an alarmist by some of my colleagues in Congress.
In April 2012, thirteen years after my projection, China seized Scarborough Shoal and now has full control over it.
We are all familiar with the concept of China’s plan to establish its Strategic Triangle in the South China Sea.
In January 2015, I had the honor of participating in a Strategic Study Symposium in Tokyo where Yoji Koda, retired Vice Admiral of the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF) and former Commander in Chief of the JMSDF fleet, led our discussion of China’s Strategic Triangle which he presented as follows (National Bureau of Asian Research. http://www.nbr.org/publications/element.aspx?id=862)
“Fiery Cross Reef seems to be a core spot that includes full military facilities, most notably a runway and a deep port. Subi and Mischief Reefs, which are about 125 miles apart, are the other artificial islands with runways and port acilities. Japan fears that four other artificial islands with various support facilities could function as outer guard posts for the three main islands with airfields and air-surveillance sites that could enable a potential Chinese air defense identification zone in the South China Sea. These man-made islands, when fully completed, would provide China with strong footholds in the Spratly Islands for controlling most of the sea lines of communication and for monitoring foreign naval and air activities. Moreover, if China in the future ever successfully builds an artificial island at the Scarborough Shoal, there would be a strategic triangle connecting Woody Island, the Spratlys, and Scarborough Shoal that would cover most of the South China Sea. The impact of this strategic triangle would be tremendous for the United States' and Japan's strategic planning and could be a game changer in regional power relations.”
There have been speculations on whether China would also build structures on Scarborough Shoal, similar or even bigger than those in the earlier artificial islands. Some have suggested that this should not be allowed, that this should be a red line as far as the other powers are concerned, especially the US.
In July 2016, testifying in the US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, Former Commander of the US Pacific Command Admiral Dennis Blair stated:
“I think we should be prepared to take military action in Scarborough Shoal if China tries to build a new artificial island). Draw the line there.”
This month, March 17, Scarborough Shoal hit the front pages in Manila when Reuters quoted the “mayor of Sansha City as follows (http://www.reuters.com/article/us-southchinasea-china-idUSKBN16O132):
“This week, Xiao Jie, the mayor of what Beijing calls Sansha City, an administrative base for disputed South China Sea islands and reefs it controls, said China planned preparatory work this year to build environmental monitoring stations on a number of islands, including Scarborough Shoal.”
This news triggered a howl in Manila with some sectors urging a diplomatic protest.
I posted a statement as follows:
“Chinese station on Scarborough Shoal is a clear and present danger to Philippine security because of the shoal's proximity to the vital economic and military installations of the Philippines
“The pre-announced Scarborough Shoal red line will test both the US and President Duterte. A Chinese station on Scarborough Shoal is a clear and present danger to Philippine security because of the shoal's proximity to the vital economic and military installations of the Philippines like Subic, Clark, Metro Manila, Basa Air Base, Sangley Point, Villamor Air Base and CALABARZON. I am sure President Duterte will not trade off Scarborough Shoal for China's projects in the Philippines.”
However, on March 22, China denied the story (Japan Times. http://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2017/03/22/asia-pacific/manila-seeks-clarification-beijing-scarborough-shoal-plans-south-china-sea/#.WOT1JjbwxsM)
“BEIJING – China is not building an environmental monitoring station on a disputed South China Sea shoal, the Foreign Ministry said Wednesday, apparently denying remarks made by a local official last week.
"Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said reports about the facility on Scarborough Shoal had been checked and were found to be false.” (http://www.malaya.com.ph/08052010/index.html)
In spite of the above denial, I believe China has plans to construct on Scarborough Shoal and is following their usual strategy of one step backward, two steps forward whenever some resistance is encountered.
We should not believe China’s denials.
China denied they wanted a permanent station in Mischief Reef when their temporary structure was discovered in 1994. They assured it was for the shelter of their fishermen and other fishermen could use it. We know what happened. From a submerged feature, it is now a 5.5 square kilometer artificial island; that's more than the area of Campa Aguinaldo, Camp Crame and Sangley Naval Station combined. Mischief Reef is now fully developed with a three kilometer long runway and it can now accommodate 24 fighter planes. It reportedly has anti-aircraft weapons and a CIWS missile-defence system.
China has this reported master plan for Scarborough Shoal which looks very extensive, a huge civilian-military complex.
Scarborough Shoal is potentially a huge structure. It consists of reefs and rocks with a perimeter of 46 km. It covers an area, including an inner lagoon, of around 150 square km almost the size of Quezon City, the largest city in Metro Manila.
I believe that China, using a combination of soft and hard power and skillful diplomacy, will eventually have massive construction on Scarborough Shoal and transform it into a huge military complex, complete with runways and harbors and multipurpose buildings, resorts and tourism facilities, giving it a harmless image of a civilian complex as is their usual strategy. Note that they call their artificial islands in the South China Sea as civilian facilities.
Just last March 30, Reuters quoted China’s Defense Ministry as follows (http://www.reuters.com/article/us-southchinasea-china-idUSKBN1711BR):
“There was "no such thing" as man-made islands in the disputed South China Sea, China's Defence Ministry said on Thursday, and reiterated that any building work was mainly for civilian purposes.”
If China is allowed to convert Scarborough Shoal into a military facility, even alone, a militarized Scarborough Shoal would be a game changer in the South China Sea. It will dominate the Philippines and neutralize the rotational bases envisioned under the Philippines- US Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement or EDCA (how the EDCA bases will be developed and used to enhance regional security is still in question given the still vague Philippines-US defense cooperation parameters in view of the ongoing rebalancing of the Philippine Foreign Policy and the kind of dynamics that the Philippines will have with the US under President Trump.
I believe China will make their move here starting around three years from now with the full operability of their aircraft carrier and the start of operation of their second carrier and additional destroyers and full militarization of Mischief Reef, Fiery Cross Reef and Subi Reef, all with fighter squadrons and possible offensive missiles.
Chinese J-11 in the South China Sea. A few days ago, China's defense minister and premier announced that their facilities in the South China Sea are for civilian use. Now there is this fighter jet, a J-11 on Woody Island (Paracels) with at least a 1,500 kilometer radius and can reach Manila and parts of Luzon, Palawan and Visayas from Woody Island. I predict that we will see the same J-11s deployed on Mischief Reef, inside our Exclusive Economic Zone and also on Fiery Cross Reef and Subi Reef, all three of which have a 3 kilometer long runway.
A Chinese J-11 fighter jet is pictured on the airstrip at Woody Island in the South China Sea in this March 29, 2017 handout satellite photo. CSIS Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative/DigitalGlobe/Handout/Reuters
A militarized Scarborough Shoal would complete China’s Strategic Triangle giving China full control of the South China Sea altering the balance of power in the Asia Pacific Region and even the world.
How would the US react if China starts construction on Scarborough Shoal? How about the Philippines? Japan? This is a big question mark that is difficult to accurately answer. But I dare to say that the US would react strongly upon seeing the start of any construction there and that would be a potential serious flashpoint.
The Rise of Benham Rise
Photo from ANC
"The area is solely claimed, as part of its continental shelf, by the Republic of the Philippines, which was confirmed by the United Nations Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf on April 12, 2012. Under the UNCLOS, a coastal state’s exclusive economic zone extends 370 kilometers (200 nautical miles) from its continental shelf, while its extended continental shelf extends for another 278 km (150 nautical miles). The UN now recognizes the Philippines’ claim and the country’s territory has increased to 43 million hectares from 30 million hectares."
"...scientific surveys indicate minerals and natural gas in the area. Solidified methane was found during mapping activities and the "probability is extremely very high" there are massive oil deposits. Benham Rise, which is wider than the entire Luzon, Samar, and Leyte combined, is now officially part of the Philippines because it is the only country within 200 nautical miles of the plateau.”
I have been following Benham Rise from the first time I heard about it from then Philippine Environment Secretary Ramon Paje who told about this huge “real estate” victory for the Philippines.
Mr. Paje looked at it as a source of food, minerals and energy, which are all strategic resources.
But my Mahan school of sea power training tells me that it could be another target for China’s drive for more geographical control. Note that China is making its presence felt all over, including even in the remote Arctic Ocean.
Last year, March 2016, I formally recommended the establishment of the Benham Rise Commission to study and oversee how to protect and develop Benham Rise.
January 23 early this year, having heard from reliable sources that China deployed ships in Benham Rise, I posted a blog warning about China’s suspicious interest in Benham Rise (http://roilogolez.blogspot.com/2017/01/golez-beware-philippines-protect-benham.html):
BEWARE PHILIPPINES!!! PROTECT BENHAM RISE! BENHAM RISE, OURS TO PROTECT!
“Now I fear China has its lustful eyes on our East Sea.
“BENHAM RISE IN PERIL? If we allow ourselves to be lulled by China's charm offensive, am afraid their next creeping move is towards our East Sea, it's lustful eyes on our 13 million hectare Benham Rise off Aurora province, awarded to us by the UN on April 12, 2012 as part of the Philippine continental shelf and territory. Before this award, our territory was only around 30 million hectares. Now, it is 43 million hectares with Benham Rise.”
March 23 came the headlines quoting our Defense Minister Delfin Lorenzana (http://globalnation.inquirer.net/153204/lorenzana-chinese-survey-ship-spotted-benham-rise#ixzz4dfEHTVsx):
Lorenzana: Chinese survey ship spotted in Benham Rise
The above news item confirmed my fears that China was eying Benham Rise.
China responded by stating that their survey ship was only in transit, in innocent passage. I countered as follows in social media March 10:
Golez: The Philippines should not accept China's reason that their survey ship was just exercising the right to innocent passage inside Benham Rise. As can be seen from the map, Benham Rise is not a regular sea lane for ships to pass through unlike other bodies of water. A survey ship does nothing else but survey. So what else does a survey ship do but survey and we Filipinos would be considered the greatest fools if we do not assume that that Chinese survey ship carried out research or survey activities in Benham Rise. Innocent passage means direct transit, not stops. That survey ship was reported to have stayed for days inside Benham Rise, a violation of the rule on innocent passage.
A Filipino columnist Jarius Bondoc, of one of our leading newspapers quoted me as follows on the issue of what the Chinese survey ship must have done while in Benham rise for around three months (http://www.philstar.com/opinion/2017/04/07/1688441/china-double-talks-benham-scs)
"Golez said of the Chinese activities: “I do not believe the survey ship conducted harmless scientific research contrary to what the Chinese officially announced. I believe it conducted what it is capable of doing to promote China’s interest and prejudice Philippine interest.”
A former Navy captain, Golez said China had two objectives:
“(1) Oceanographic survey – to determine the characteristics of the undersea, study the thermocline patterns; data on thermoclines are very important for identifying possible submarine hiding areas, which are of critical importance in future submarine warfare in China’s so-called First and Second Island Defense Chains;
“(2) Hydrographic seismic survey – to study what could be under the seabed, to determine through sound reflection and refraction possible oil and gas. Considering the vastness of Benham Rise, the likelihood of such deposits is very strong, many times larger than at Malampaya (westside, in Palawan).”
I believe China is interested in Benham Rise because of two strategic reasons:
- Oceanographic data for use in future attack and ballistic submarine deployment.
- Data on strategic natural resources like:
- fish (China’s food supply is getting very critical) and
- energy (oil, gas, methane etc. they need alternate supplies to support their rapid industrialization and help ease their Malacca dilemma wherein around 80% of their oil supply can be interdicted or blockaded in the Malacca Strait or even the Indian Ocean)
China’s long range plans for sure include soft targets they can seize using hard power or using soft power and skillful diplomacy and alliance building to secure their geopolitical objectives and strategic food and energy resources.
I submit that Benham Rise is one of them. It's a big, strategic objective.
A master of diplomacy like China would certainly aspire to make the Philippines a part of its orbit in the same manner that it is building alliances in the Indian Ocean, far Africa and South America using their soft power.
Why would the Philippines and Benham Rise be of strategic interest to China?
It’s because of the geo-strategic concept of The First Island Chain and The Second Island Chain. We are all very familiar with this but let me define briefly for the guidance of the layman. Here’s a map to better illustrate the First Island Chain and the Second Island Chain.
"The first island chain refers to the first chain of major archipelagos out from the East Asian continental mainland coast. Principally composed of the Kuril Islands, Japanese Archipelago, Ryukyu Islands, Taiwan, the northern Philippines, and Borneo; from the Kamchatka Peninsula to the Malay Peninsula. Some definitions of the first island chain anchor the northern end on the Russian Far East coast north of Sahkalin Island, with Sahkalin Island being the first link in the chain. However, others consider the Aleutians as the farthest north-eastern first link in the chain. The first island chain forms one of three island chain doctrines within the Island Chain Strategy.
"The first island chain has its purpose in Chinese military doctrine. The People's Republic of China views the first island chain as the area it must secure and disable from American bases, aircraft and
aircraft-carrier groups, if in defending itself it must tactically unleash a pre-emptive attack against an enemy. The aim of the doctrine is to seal off the Yellow Sea, South China Sea and East China Sea inside an arc running from the Aleutians in the north to Borneo in the south.[ According to reports by American think tanks CSBA and RAND, by 2020, China will be well on its way to having the means to achieve its first island chain policy. (“China’s military rise: The dragon’s new teeth: A rare look inside the world’s biggest military expansion”,
The Economist, dated 7 April 2012.)
"Second Island Chain
"The Second Island Chain can refer to two different interpretations, but the version most commonly used refers to the island chain which is formed by the Ogasawara Islands and Volcano Islands of Japan, in addition to Mariana Islands which is United States territory.
"As it is located within the middle portion of the Pacific Ocean, it acts as a second strategic defense line for the United States." (Wikipedia)
The objective of the US is to contain China within the First Island Chain. The objective of China is to break out of the First island Chain and project its power up to the Second Island Chain.
In the 90s before their spectacular economic rise, breaking out of the First Island Chain was an unthinkable proposition for China because of the overwhelming might of the US forces and their allies. We all remember the Taiwan Strait Crisis of 1996 when the US deployed two carrier battle groups backed by an amphibious assault ship. One carrier and the amphibious assault ship sailed through the Taiwan Strait while the other carrier was on stand by in the vicinity and China backed off.
Now, it will be different. US forces cannot anymore sail through the Strait of Taiwan in a provocative manner without facing grave risks and must project their power from a safer distance to prevent a Chinese breakthrough beyond the First Island Chain.
In the above map, the Philippines is East of the First Island China and the length of Philippine archipelago covers the southern segment of the First Island Chain. The Philippines is a barrier because of its alliance with the US. The Philippines can be a gateway if that alliance is reversed depending on geopolitical developments in the future as dictated by a mix of hard power, soft power and diplomacy that would be brought to bear by the contending powers. Realignments will not happen this year. Not next year, but it’s hard to tell five years or ten years from now when the geopolitical and geo-strategic forces will continue to bear on the Philippines.
It is difficult to realign the Philippines from its existing alliance, but Benham Rise can provide a short cut where China can position itself outside the First Island Chain with or without the acquiescence of the Philippines just like what happened in Mischief Reef and Scarborough Shoal.
On September 27 last year, Mr. Perry Diaz, a respected syndicated Filipino columnist took note of Benham Rise and issued a warning just like I warned several months earlier in March 2016 about the need to protect and develop Benham Rise through the creation of the Benham Rise Commission. In his column PERRYSCOPE, Global Balita, Mr. Diaz stated:
“With China’s goal of controlling the vast Western Pacific, which includes the East China Sea (ECS), South China Sea (SCS), and the Philippine Sea, the entire Western Pacific would be transformed into “Lake Beijing.” The Philippines would be right in the middle of the lake, isolated from the rest of the world. “Lake Beijing” would also encompass the mineral-rich Benham Rise as well.
And the above self evident map came out in his column. Mr. Perry’s worry is that China would gain control of Benham Rise and its vast natural resources should China succeed in breaking out of the First Island Chain towards the Second Island Chain.
I would like to add, invoking oft quoted sea power expert Admiral Mahan’s doctrine on control of the sea lanes or SLOC or sea lines of communication, that China now is looking at Benham Rise not just as a source of strategic resources but most importantly as a way of controlling the SLOCS of the Western Pacific through the use of submarines or even through its proven strategy of constructing artificial structures in the middle of the ocean.
Benham Rise has areas which are suitable for submarine operations and I would assume that China has gathered enough oceanographic data for this.
Benham Rise has areas shallow enough for artificial structures that can serve as naval bases or even for runways and I would assume that China has mapped the seabed in the shallow parts for this purpose.
Should China succeed in seizing some space in Benham Rise for submarine operations, it would be a big threat to the US-Japan alliance. But I believe that even at this point the other powers - US and Japan - is also looking at this threat even if it is only in the conceptual stage, and take measures to prevent China from seizing an inroad in Benham Rise. I expect that Benham Rise will be a setting for serious super power competition.
Indeed, the Philippines faces a serious security challenge in two fronts, and what happens in the coming years or decades will impact on the balance of power in the Asia Pacific and beyond.