A map recently released by a Washington-based think tank of China’s power projection capabilities in the South China Sea shows the Philippines is within range of Chinese warplanes and missiles.
The Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (Amti) showed that “expected” ranges of China’s capabilities—the Chengdu J-10 multirole fighter aircraft, YJ-62 antiship cruise missiles and HQ-9 surface-to-air missile—
could reach Palawan.
All of these military capabilities have been deployed to Woody Island in the Paracels, a group of islands disputed by Vietnam and China.
“Since 2014, China has substantially expanded its ability to monitor and project power throughout the South China Sea via the construction of dual civilian-military bases at its outposts in the disputed Spratly and Paracel islands,” Amti said.
“These include new radar and communications arrays, airstrips and hangars to accommodate combat aircraft, shelters likely meant to house missile platforms, and deployments of mobile surface-to-air and antiship cruise missile systems at Woody Island in the Paracels,” it added.
“For the bases at Fiery Cross, Mischief and Subi reefs, fighter and missile ranges represent expected future deployments based on the hangars and shelters built to accommodate those assets,” Amti said.
Fiery Cross, Mischief and Subi reefs—all claimed by the Philippines—are known to Filipinos as Kagitingan, Panganiban and Zamora reefs, respectively.
China has long planned for an expansive maritime defensive perimeter straddling Asian waters and stretching out to the Pacific Ocean.
The perimeter is known as the first island chain in the South China Sea and the second island chain in the East China Sea.
But geography is a challenge to China: Japan sits above the first and second island chains, while the Philippines lies between the two chains.
A Philippine Navy official familiar with the country’s operations in the South China Sea, told the Inquirer that the Amti map reflects the antiaccess area denial or A2/AD strategic concept of China to restrict access of the US and other foreign militaries to strategic locations in the region.
China’s power projection shows how it is building “sufficient force in the West Philippine Sea to keep the US out, to make it too risky to the US to venture to the South China Sea,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
West Philippine Sea is the waters within the Philippines’ 370-kilometer exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in the South China Sea.
“If they (China) could just achieve parity or a stalemate in the South China Sea, it is enough for them having achieved their goal of having the first island chain,” he said.
Amti director Gregory Poling told the Inquirer that “there aren’t any missiles on the Spratly bases yet, and the ones in the Paracels are primarily of concern to Vietnam and ships moving through the northern part of the sea.”
“But once assets are deployed to the Spratlys, it will make life much more difficult for the Philippines and everyone else who has traditionally operated in and around the Spratlys and the waters west of the Philippines,” Poling said.
Importance of Panatag
Taking a look at the Amti map, the Philippine Navy official said that aside from the J-10s, China’s J-11 and J-20 fighter jets were also expected to be launched on the artificial islands.
“These can actually cover Metro Manila,” the official said.
Opposition Rep. Gary Alejano added that the map clearly showed the importance of Panatag Shoal in China’s plans.
“Scarborough Shoal will complete the triangular defense of China, which includes the Paracels and the Spratlys,” Alejano, a former Marine officer, said, using the international name of Panatag Shoal, a rich fishing ground off the coast of Zambales province that China seized from the Philippines after a two-month maritime standoff in 2012.
Panatag lies 223 km from Zambales. The militarization of any artificial island built on Panatag will cover the entire Luzon and the south of Taiwan, Alejano said.
Woody Island in the Paracel archipelago is just as strategic for China’s A2/AD strategy.
Power projection is expected from any military as part of a nation’s strategic defense, Alejano said.
The problem, he said, is that President Duterte himself has adopted a sudden policy shift of extreme friendliness toward China that weakens the Philippines’ own defense strategy.
The Philippine Navy official admitted that there was not much the Philippines could do in the face of China’s military capabilities, although engagement with the United States and other allies such as Japan, Australia and even India continued to deepen.
But he pointed out that tensions on the Korean Peninsula are adding to the tangled web of challenges that need to be dealt with in the South China Sea.
“They (the United States) will tie this up with Korea. So long as North Korea keeps testing, the US will harp on that. They might even test their capability to knock out some of the sites of North Korea if only to send a message to the Chinese that we can also do this to you,” the official said.
China could use North Korea as a bargaining chip to keep its grip on the South China Sea, said former National Security Adviser Cesar Garcia.
Garcia said it was not unlikely that if China could get North Korea to listen, it could ask the United States, in exchange, to limit its actions and rhetoric in the South China Sea.
The Philippines could end up being one vulnerable claimant country, Garcia said.
Arbitral court victory
It’s unfortunate, he said, that the Philippines has not used its victory in the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) to its advantage.
The sudden shift in policy has actually upset a lot of other countries in Southeast Asia, Garcia said.
For the Navy official, the Philippines must “reinforce” the five Philippine-occupied islands in the Spratlys collectively known as Kalayaan Island Group.
Actually, he said, the military has begun to “repair, enhance and reinforce what we have.”
The PCA decision, which nullified China’s claim to almost all of the South China Sea and clarified the Philippines’ EEZ, remains to be the Philippines’ most potent defense, given that the Philippine military’s capability is no match for China’s, he said.
“We have to stake our claim,” said the Navy official.
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