By Tatsuya Fukumoto and Yuko Mukai / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff WritersPhilippine President Rodrigo Duterte has clearly shown his intention to distance his country militarily and otherwise from its ally the United States, drawing attention from the international community. How would the pivot of the Philippines to a more “China-oriented” policy affect the military situation in the South China Sea and the security situation in East Asia?
Controlling the triangle
Since 2014, China has been constructing military facilities by conducting large-scale reclamation at a phenomenal rate on seven reefs that it effectively controls in the South China Sea, including Fiery Cross, Subi and Mischief reefs in the Spratly Islands. It has also constructed a 3,000-meter runway and a large harbor at Fiery Cross Reef.
According to Japanese and foreign experts, China’s likely military goal in the South China Sea is to make Scarborough Shoal, located near the Philippines, a military base by reclamation, forming a “strategic triangle” together with Woody Island in the Paracel Islands, already effectively controlled by China and equipped with a runway, and the Spratly Islands to the south.
What is the importance of the “triangle” to China?
“Militarily speaking, establishing this strategic triangle is a requirement for China to control the South China Sea as delimited by the nine-dash line (see below),” explains Yoji Koda, a former commander in chief of the Maritime Self-Defense Force fleet. “Completing the triangle would allow China to assert control over this vast area of South China Sea.”
By making bases in those three areas footholds for deployment and logistics, China would be able to deploy such aircraft as its mainstay Su-30 fighters and H-6 bombers over a wide area, giving the country greater aerial dominance.
In addition to increasing its early-warning and surveillance capabilities via radar facilities, this would also make it easier for China to establish an air defense identification zone based on artificial islands in the future, posing threats to aircraft from other countries even in airspace far from mainland China by scrambling fighters.
The completion of the “triangle” would also turn the South China Sea into a kind of sanctuary. In Sanya on Hainan Island, China has a base for nuclear submarines that can be equipped with strategic ballistic missiles, but their activity is limited as the area is under surveillance by the U.S. forces. Achieving air supremacy in the South China Sea is expected to give greater freedom of activity to China, facilitating such scenarios as strategic nuclear submarines slipping through the Bashi Channel into the Pacific Ocean and sailing to a location from which their nuclear missiles could be launched against the mainland United States.
For the time being, the focus is on when China will begin reclamation work on Scarborough Shoal.
Scarborough Shoal is part of the Macclesfield Bank to the west of the Philippines and is located approximately 220 kilometers from Subic Port in northern Luzon Island and approximately 300 kilometers from Clark Air Base, both of which are used as footholds by the U.S. military.
The arbitral tribunal that rejected China’s claims over the South China Sea in July resulted from a suit brought by the Philippines after losing effective control of Scarborough Shoal to China in 2012.
The court found that China’s operations of public vessels on Scarborough Shoal violated the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea and infringed on the rights of Philippine fishermen and others. Duterte’s top priority is to gain China’s recognition of Philippine fishing activity around Scarborough Shoal.
Duterte has stated that he raised this issue in a meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping on Oct. 20 and that Xi promised to issue an order for the Chinese vessels to withdraw.
Some in the Japanese government believe that ruling of the tribunal means it will no longer be so simple for China to reclaim Scarborough Shoal. However, China is unlikely to abandon its reclamation.
“This is only a temporary pause,” predicts Tetsuo Kotani, a senior research fellow at the Japan Institute of International Affairs. “They will eventually start to reclaim Scarborough Shoal. With the U.S. presidential election and the new incoming leadership in sight, they may prioritize building up their footholds in the South China Sea over appeasing Mr. Duterte.”
Fears of disruption to Japanese logistics
The South China Sea is also important to Japan as a sea line of communication for the import of resources such as crude oil and natural gas from the Middle East. “Once Scarborough Shoal is made into a military base and China effectively has jurisdiction over the South China Sea, China will be able to halt the sea-based logistical flows of other countries through the area under domestic law,” warns Koda. “China will be able to put a stranglehold on Japan without even fighting.”
It is indispensable to secure freedom of navigation through what amounts to a lifeline for the Japanese economy.
It will be important for Japan to continue such existing cooperation with the Philippines as economic aid, defense cooperation and strengthening the Philippine Coast Guard, while working with the United States and the international community to secure the rule of law in the South China Sea.
Coinciding with a Japanese-Philippine summit meeting between Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and President Duterte on Oct. 26, agreements were signed between the two governments, including one that provides for Japan to lend five Maritime Self-Defense Force’s TC-90 training aircraft to the Philippines. The aircraft loan program is expected to begin next March.
With the Philippines scheduled to hold the rotating chairmanship of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations next year, an additional layer of complexity is expected to be added to the South China Sea issue.
Japan is expected to make use of more strategic diplomacy to avoid decidedly worsening U.S.-Philippine relations.
■ The nine-dash line
The delineation, drawn by China as a U-shaped line of nine dashes on a map of the South China Sea, outlines the area inside which China claims sovereignty. It has no basis in international law. The ruling issued by the court of arbitration in The Hague in July concluded that China has no legal basis to claim historic rights in the area.