GI Go Home, Again: The Philippines-U.S. Alliance Weakens

On Tuesday, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte abruptly demanded that American military advisors on the southern Philippine island of Mindanao “have to go.”  His stated concern was that the presence of American troops on Mindanao antagonized local Muslims and that the troops could become targets of Abu Sayyaf, an extremist Islamic group, for kidnapping and ransom.

The American military advisors were once part of the U.S. Joint Special Operations Task Force-Philippines operating under the authorities of Operation Enduring Freedom-Philippines, headquartered at an airbase near Zamboanga.  The task force had been deployed there for a decade as part of a program to train and support elements of the Philippine military in its efforts to combat Islamic militants throughout the region.  Last year, that program was wound down and most of the American troops left.  But a small detachment of military advisors remained behind.

Precisely why Duterte chose to make his remarks is unclear.  They might have been intended to strengthen his hand in peace talks that he reopened with the Philippines’ largest Muslim rebel group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), in August.  Those talks had been stalled for over a year after a botched anti-terror raid against Islamic militants, including the MILF, resulted in the deaths of 44 Philippine police commandos.  The raid derailed his predecessor’s attempt to fulfill an accord reached in 2014 under which the rebels agreed to lay down their arms in return for the passage of a law turning a large part of Mindanao into an autonomous region.  How successful Duterte’s peace talks will be remains to be seen.  In early September, Islamic militants bombed a night market in Davao City, where Duterte was once mayor.  The blast killed 14 people and wounded 70 more.

Back in Manila, Philippine Foreign Minister Perfecto Yasay, Jr. downplayed the impact of Duterte’s remarks.  According to Yasay, the larger defense relationship between the Philippines and the United States remained “rock solid.”  The removal of a “token” number of American military advisors from Mindanao would not affect that relationship or the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement that the two countries signed in 2014.

But Duterte’s remarks come at an awkward time in relations between the Philippines and the United States.  Only a week ago, at the ASEAN summit in Laos, a meeting between Duterte and President Barack Obama was cancelled after Duterte chided Obama for his criticism of Duterte’s anti-drug campaign in the Philippines.  While the two men eventually met, the incident amplified doubts over how Duterte’s administration would work with Washington.

More broadly, Duterte’s remarks reflected the deep ambivalence many Filipinos on the political left feel about the United States.  They would prefer it if the Philippines distanced itself from its one-time colonial ruler.  Indeed, Duterte already put a halt to the joint Philippine-American naval patrols in the South China Sea.  And, recently, he stated that he would favor buying weapons from China and Russia, rather than the United States.

Unfortunately, the Philippines needs the United States, at least until the Philippine armed forces can build up a credible external deterrent.  The last time Manila ordered American forces to leave the Philippines was in the early 1990s.  Soon thereafter, China took advantage of the weakened alliance to seize Philippine-claimed Mischief Reef.  Today China has not only fortified the reef, but also reclaimed enough land there to build an airfield on it.  Duterte’s remarks give China another opportunity.  Duterte may believe he can reach an accommodation with China without the United States.  But that accommodation will likely be on Chinese terms.

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Digging In: Land Reclamation and Defenses in the South China Sea

The U.S. Department of Defense’s latest assessment of the Chinese military provided new detail on China’s land reclamation efforts on several of the islets that it occupies in the South China Sea.  These include Fiery Cross Reef, Gaven Reef, Johnson South Reef, Mischief Reef, and Subi Reef in the Spratly archipelago.  By December 2014, the report estimated that China had reclaimed as much as 500 acres of new land, creating full-fledged islands where only coral reefs or sand spits existed before.  Since then, China has only accelerated its efforts, expanding the total land area that it has reclaimed to 2,000 acres and building military facilities, ports, and at least one airstrip on the islands.[1]

China is not alone in reclaiming land in the Spratly Islands.  Though dwarfed by the massive scale of China’s efforts, Vietnam’s land reclamation work has recovered a total of 21 acres of land on West London Reef and Sand Cay.  Satellite imagery shows that not only are the two islands larger, but that Vietnam has constructed defensive positions and gun emplacements on them.[2]

Meanwhile, Taiwan is carrying out a more modestly-paced land reclamation effort on Itu Aba Island—the largest natural island in the Spratly archipelago—reclaiming roughly five acres of land.  By the end of this year, Taiwan plans to complete a large wharf that can accommodate its frigates and coast guard cutters.  Eventually, it hopes to extend the island’s runway and deploy P-3C maritime patrol aircraft there.[3]

Hence, China regards criticism from Southeast Asian countries over its island-building activities as a case of the pot calling the kettle black.  China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs recently shot back at its most vocal critic, the Philippines, which it claims “has conducted large-scale construction of military and civil facilities, including airports, ports and barracks on [Philippine-occupied] islands for many years.”  As a result, China called upon the Philippines to end its “malicious hyping and provocation.”[4]

Accusations aside, bigger islands that are bristling with weapons will not settle the disputes in the South China Sea.  No doubt military installations on the islands can be useful.  They can improve the ability of claimants to monitor and rapidly respond to incidents in the area.  And ultimately, they serve as a tripwire against hostile action.  But further fortifying the islands makes them only marginally more secure.  However strong an island’s defenses are, they are inherently vulnerable.

If push comes to shove, an island’s defenses can exact a toll on an attacker, especially if they are armed with anti-ship or anti-air missiles.  But eventually they will be lost without control of the sea and air around them.  A determined attacker that dominates both can always overcome an island’s defenses, no matter how skillful their defenders are.  Only superior naval and air power can ensure the safety of island outposts.  On that score, China has its rivals beat at the moment.

There once was a time when claimants in the South China Sea vied to demonstrate how their occupied islets met certain criteria to be considered islands under international law.  That way they could claim the rights to exclusive economic zones around their specks of land.  Today, a growing list of claimants, chief among them China, would rather build artificial islands than quibble over the finer points of international law.  There is an out-and-out scramble to establish de facto zones of control and land reclamation is part of that.

[1] Office of the Secretary of Defense, Annual Report to Congress: Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2015 (Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Defense, May 2015), p. 72; James Hardy, Sean O’Connor, and Michael Cohen, “China’s first runway in Spratlys under construction,” Jane’s Defence Weekly, Apr. 16, 2015.

[2] Gordon Lubold and Adam Entous, “U.S. Says Beijing Is Building Up South China Sea Islands,” Wall Street Journal, May, 9, 2015.

[3] Gavin Phipps and James Hardy, “Taiwan to deploy P-3Cs to Spratlys,” Jane’s Defence Weekly, Apr. 21, 2015.

[4] Ben Blanchard and Manuel Mogato, “China says Philippines violating South China Sea code,” Reuters, May 5, 2015.

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China’s (Is)land Reclamation in the South China Sea

For the last few years, China and the Philippines have repeatedly accused each other of destabilizing the uneasy balance in the South China Sea, where both sides claim small bits of land among the Spratly Islands.  Both have attempted to demonstrate their control over the area by using naval and coast guard patrols to protect what they consider to be their national fisheries.  And on occasion, they have detained and fined each others’ fishermen.  That is what happened early this month when Philippine authorities caught a Chinese fishing boat poaching sea turtles off Half Moon Shoal.

But China has become more assertive in its claims over the South China Sea.  After a months-long standoff at sea in 2012, it has effectively barred the Philippines from Scarborough Shoal, an islet about 200 km off the west coast of the Philippine island of Luzon (and well within the Philippines’ 200 nautical mile exclusive economic zone).  The Philippines has responded by beefing up its armed forces and drawing closer to the United States, even entering into a new security pact with it last month called the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (earlier referred to as the Increased Rotational Presence).

South China Sea - Spratly Islands

Meanwhile, China argues that it was Manila that escalated tensions, because it failed to remove the BRP Sierra Madre, an old landing ship tank that the Philippines had deliberately run aground on Second Thomas Shoal in 1999, after China built a permanent concrete structure on nearby Mischief Reef.  The Philippines now stations a small marine detachment on the ship to maintain its claim on the shoal and observe Chinese activity.  Earlier this year, China prevented the Philippines from resupplying that garrison in another round of confrontation.

But on May 15, the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs released a series of photographs that show Chinese land reclamation and construction efforts on Johnson South Reef (or Mabini Reef in the Philippines) over the course of the last two years.[1]

Johnson South Reef, March 13, 2012

Johnson South Reef - March 2012

Johnson South Reef, February 28, 2013

Johnson South Reef - February 2013

Johnson South Reef, February 25, 2014

Johnson South Reef - February 2014

Johnson South Reef, March 11, 2014

Johnson South Reef - March 2014

Manila speculates that China intends to build an airstrip on the reef, based on the scale of the land reclamation.  That would make some sense, since China has no airstrip in the Spratly Islands (apart from a few helicopter landing pads).  China’s nearest airstrip is on Woody Island in the Paracel group.  There Chinese engineers built a 2,700-meter airstrip, long enough to support all types of Chinese combat aircraft, though Woody Island is so small that it is unlikely to accommodate enough facilities to serve as a full-fledged air base.[2]  But even a basic airstrip on Johnson South Reef could reduce the logistical burden of supporting Chinese garrisons across the Spratly Islands.  Such an airstrip could also support light surveillance aircraft, giving China a greater situational awareness over the region.  (Only more photographs will tell whether China actually builds an airstrip on the reef.)  Currently, of the six claimants to the Spratly Islands, only Taiwan and the Philippines, occupying the largest islands in the group, have airstrips in the area.

The Philippines has declared that China’s land reclamation on Johnson South Reef is in violation of the non-binding Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, which both China and the Philippines signed in 2002.  The code pledges its signatories to not pursue “activities that would complicate or escalate disputes and affect peace and stability including, among others, refraining from action of inhabiting on the presently uninhabited islands, reefs, shoals, cays, and other features.”[3]  The Philippines interprets that as a promise not to build on any of the South China Sea’s contested islands.  China obviously disagrees.  Manila lodged a formal protest against China last month, but Beijing rejected it.

While Beijing might rightly claim that some incidents in the South China Sea have been used to cast China in a negative light, it is clear that China has sought to change the status-quo in the area.  The other disputants in the region have begun to push back.  The Philippines brought its dispute with China over the Spratly Islands to the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague in March 2014.  This month, Vietnam confronted Chinese offshore oil drilling activities near the Paracel Islands, which it disputes with China.  Even now, dozens of Chinese and Vietnamese boats are circling the Hai Yang Shi You 981 (or HD 981) oil rig, about 220 km east of Vietnam’s coast.  That confrontation has sparked anti-Chinese protests and violence against factories in Vietnam, and prompted the United States to criticize China’s “aggressive” and “provocative” moves.  But Beijing has paid little heed, reiterating that both island groups are within China’s sovereign territory.

While countries like Indonesia and Malaysia have tried to maintain friendly ties with China, its recent actions in the South China Sea must concern their leaders.  It is harder for even those who consider themselves friends of China to continue giving it the benefit of the doubt.  But then again, that was the point of the Philippines’ photographs.

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