Scarborough Shoal: China throws the US pivot a lifeline

After a shaky week, the pivot to Asia got a lifeline from an unlikely source—the People’s Republic of China.

The PRC apparently let it be known through public channels that island-building Scarborough Shoal was a distinct possibility.  This gave credence to the recent high-profile commotion over Scarborough Shoal—recently marked by a close approach by A-10 “Warthog” fighters and HH-60G Pave Hawks helicopters (used for special ops insertion and extraction)—as something more than self-serving alarmism by China hawks at the Pentagon.

Building on Scarborough Shoal would be pretty much legal.

But it would be pretty outrageous for a variety of reasons.  First off, a look at the map reveals the shoal is very close to the main Philippine island of Luzon and would fall within any reasonable Philippine Exclusive Economic Zone. Second, there are no existing structures on Scarborough Shoal, so island building would be a flagrant breach of the ASEAN Code of Conduct standstill agreement.  Third, putting a runway on the Shoal would create a plausible military threat to Philippine and US military facilities on Luzon.

But the PRC seems to be stating its determination to (mixing metaphors here) pour gasoline on the smoldering South China Sea fire and provide much-needed oxygen to pivoteers in Washington.

pivot

First off, a call for tender for island building the Scarborough Shoal found its way on to the Internet.

Then, at the South China Morning Post on April 25, Minnie Chan reported 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…

A measure of confirmation of these external signals was provided by the distribution on Sohu’s military channel of an article by the popular Xinhua tabloid “Reference News” (Cankao Xiaoxi) citing the SCMP report.

The Reference Times piece also assembles recent “escalating tensions” overseas reporting concerning the South China Sea (including a statement that the UNCLOS arbitration “expected end June” will probably go against the PRC, an acknowledgement I haven’t seen elsewhere in Chinese media).

Provocative statement lost in translation?

It also translates (with some liberties) some incendiary remarks made by a high-profile PRC international relations boffin, Shi Yinghong, to Peter Hartcher and published in the Sydney Morning Herald on April 26, 2016.

In the original Australian:

“China,” Shi explains, “must be number one in diplomatic influence and economic clout and maybe in [military] force. It wants to prevent the US military’s freedom of navigation eventually, and gradually squeeze Vietnam, the Philippines and all the others out of the South China Sea.” This is precisely what the region’s governments fear.

Xi is a decisive leader, says Shi, who “shows that he has guts – he’s not afraid of confrontation.”

“He wants the support of the people and the support of the military and he wants to win glory. He believes in China’s historical greatness.” In this, Shi says, the president is at one with the Chinese public: “Xi is China. Chinese citizens are more nationalistic and triumphalist than ever before. In this sense, Xi represents the people.”

China’s claim to about 90% of the South China Sea is based on “land left by our ancestors – it is sovereign and sacred and Xi’s policy is not to concede even one inch”.

Xi Jinping

Xi Jinping

Amusingly, the editors at Reference News omitted the “Xi is China” statement and substituted “China” for “Xi” in the final statement, presumably to avoid that “Red Emperor” vibe.

The most provocative statement by Shi was, per the Sydney Morning Herald that “[China]  wants to prevent the US military’s freedom of navigation eventually, and gradually squeeze Vietnam, the Philippines and all others out of the South China Sea.”

For perhaps a better understanding of what the PRC perhaps intends to convey, it’s probably advisable to go to Reference News’ Chinese version, which translates as “In the end, China hopes to end the “Freedom of Navigation” operations of the US military.” It omits the rather idiotic “squeeze” statement.

The interesting point was not that Shi said this, or that Peter Hartcher, a China hawk, eagerly trumpeted it. PRC triumphalism is Shi’s default posture and this was the usual hardline blather. The interesting points are that he made these statements to the Sydney Morning Herald at a rather sensitive time for the pivot (assuming they were made recently and were not some time ago, to be held in inventory by the SMH for deployment at an opportune moment) and, more significantly to me, that the statements were broadcast domestically, indicating a certain measure of official endorsement.

Sub slap to Japan

The pivot actually had a tough, unsettling week, capped by Australia’s bewildering announcement that it would be taking its A$50 billion submarine business, not to Japan, but to France.  Quite a poke in the eye to US pivoteers, who wanted to see Japan a) rewarded for its move to collective self defense (which, also, for the first time, enables arms exports) and b) more deeply embedded in the regional pivot security architecture.

Also near the top of the list of headaches was the surge of populist hard head Rodrigo Duterte to the top position in polling for the Philippine presidential election. Duterte is no friend of the PRC, but he’s also suspicious of the staying power and motives of the United States and Australia.  As caricatured in the Philippine press, his “West Philippine Sea” strategy is to ride a Jetski to an island claim, shake his fist at China, and demand parlay.

Bilateral parlay is, of course, the PRC’s preferred mode of engagement with its smaller Asian neighbors and the PRC has been engaged in a public relations blitz to advance the bilateralism theme, one that has attracted the scorn and nervous laughter of pivoteers around the world.

The PRC’s announcement that Gambia endorsed its position on the UNCLOS arbitration was, not surprisingly, widely mocked.

Chinese Coast Guard ships patrol South China Sea

Chinese Coast Guard ships patrol South China Sea

More anxiety than laughter was expended on the PRC announcement that Laos, Cambodia, and Brunei had endorsed the PRC position that SCS disputes should not affect relations with ASEAN. Pivoteers noted that these countries had not openly acknowledged the PRC assertion, opined the PRC was making stuff up, and excoriated China for “trying to split ASEAN.”  However, as the local report on Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s Brunei press conference reveals, the PRC is actually pursuing a rather canny approach:

The foreign minister said both countries agreed that the “dual track approach” is the most realistic and peaceful way to handle territorial disputes in the sea.

In the past Brunei described this dual track as the ‘bilateral approach and the regional approach’ – sovereignty claims are discussed and negotiated bilaterally, while the overall peace and stability is upheld by ASEAN and China.

Wang added that certain countries – declining to name any specific nation – were introducing “destabilizing elements” to the South China Sea and jeopardizing peace. “Any violation of the dual track approach will lead to a situation where ASEAN’s overall interests is impeded or hijacked by certain countries for its own selfish interests and the overall stability might be undermined by the interference by some outside force,” he said.

In other words, ASEAN respected but bilateral issues discussed bilaterally.

The security minister of Indonesia appeared in Beijing for bilateral security discussions, demonstrating that despite the outrage apparently inflicted on its fisheries patrol boats in Indonesian territorial waters by the PRC Coast Guard, Indonesia was not signing on to the US-advocated united front strategy.

Scarborough ShoalThe PRC Ministry of Foreign Affairs also announced that the bilateral approach was advancing in boundary delimitation discussions with India, South Korea, and Vietnam.

So, here we have the PRC cleverly playing a tricky regional hand in anticipation of losing the UNCLOS arbitration and being on the receiving end of a lot of criticism for its high-handed disregard of international law in ignoring the judgment.  It’s sending the message bilateralism is the most effective way to deal with the PRC, and other states should stand aloof from the PRC-Philippine dispute and resist suggestions they club together to make joint demands on the PRC.

On the other hand, PRC mouthpieces apparently start making inflammatory statements about challenging the US in the West Pacific, asserting the most maximalist claims concerning the area within the Nine Dash Line, and threatening to build up Scarborough Shoal, thereby supporting the US narrative of China as an aggressive revisionist power that needs to be reined in through collective action.

If this tough talk is not just amplified pivot static, the PRC is probably trying to quarantine the Philippines dispute from the rest of ASEAN while signaling its resolve to deter more muscular action by the US — perhaps like escorting Philippine fishing vessels trying to enjoy their newly affirmed EEZ rights or openly convoying relief ships to the Philippines beached-freighter outpost on Second Thomas Shoal– after the UNCLOS judgment comes down.

PRC escalating naval tactics?

Pivoteers reflexively dismiss any talk of the PRC confronting the US Navy as bluff, indeed a welcome bluff to be called, and certainly the PRC maritime doctrine to date has been based on beating up on over matched local vessels while avoiding humiliating encounters with the US Navy.

However, the PRC may have decided that a paradigm shift is called for, and the suggestion of overt US military backing of the Philippines in the South China Sea may have to be met with a threat of, if not Armageddon, some genuine passive-aggressive harassment.  The PRC did deploy some “fishing boats” to interfere with a US naval vessel, the USS Impeccable, as it conducted military surveys within the PRC EEZ in 2009, and the Soviet Union has established a precedent for “bump & run” challenges to US FONOPS in the Black Sea.

In other words, the PRC could be assembling a portfolio of escalating confrontational tactics, to be deployed if the US steps up its support of the Philippines — and perhaps culminating in sharp-elbowed jostling over a potential PRC island-building project on Scarborough Shoal.

Peter Lee runs the China Matters blog. He writes on the intersection of US policy with Asian and world affairs.

The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the view of Asia Times.

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