Beijing halts work on island to wean Manila off US alliance

A photo provided by the US military showing what are described as Chinese dredging vessels in the waters around Mischief Reef in the disputed Spratly Islands.
A photo provided by the US military showing what are described as Chinese dredging vessels in the waters around Mischief Reef in the disputed Spratly Islands.PHOTO: NYTIMES

Transforming disputed area right under Duterte's nose would ruin any chance of that, say analysts

BEIJING • China's next big target for construction of an artificial island in the South China Sea has long been assumed to be a cluster of rocks poking above sapphire waters near the Philippines.

For several years, Chinese coast guard vessels and fishing trawlers have hovered around the reef, known as Scarborough Shoal. Giant dredges, suitable for building a military base, were recently rumoured to be on their way there.

But the election of President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines, who has since showered threats and insults on the United States, has changed China's calculation.

That does not mean China has given up on the long-term goal of what could be a vast military base on Scarborough Shoal.

But for the moment, the plans appear to be postponed.

More important for Beijing now, Chinese analysts say, is friendship with Mr Duterte and an effort to wean his country away from its treaty alliance with Washington.

Transforming a shoal right under his nose would ruin any chance of that.

"It would be irrational to build it into a fortress now," said Professor Zhang Baohui, a professor of international relations at Lingnan University in Hong Kong.

"The government would like the Philippines to at least remain neutral in the rivalry between the US and China. Now at least they have a chance."

In July, a tribunal in The Hague delivered a harsh rebuke to China's activities in the South China Sea, including its construction of artificial islands in the Spratly archipelago, not far from the Philippines. But China has ignored the decision.

The Obama administration praised the ruling as legally binding but refrained from trumpeting it.

The reasoning was that little could be done, short of risking military confrontation, to stop the construction of facilities like hangars for fighter jets and buildings for radar and surface-to-air missiles.

Three of seven artificial islands in the Spratlys are designed as military bases, the US military says.

Among them, Subi Reef has a harbour bigger than Pearl Harbor, and another, Mischief Reef, has a land perimeter nearly the size of the District of Columbia's, US Navy submarine warfare officer Thomas Shugart said in a paper issued last week.

Together, the three islands could probably accommodate as many as 17,000 military personnel and support aircraft able to deter or counter a US military intervention, said Mr Shugart, who is serving as a senior military fellow at the Centre for a New American Security in Washington, but writes as an independent analyst.

Scarborough Shoal, with a deep lagoon covering nearly 155 sq km, offers an even bigger prize as a potential Chinese military base.

"The picture would become even worse were China to build and militarise a similar island base at Scarborough Shoal," Mr Shugart wrote.

Both China and the Philippines claim the shoal, which the US used as a firing range during the Vietnam War.

Until 2012, Chinese and Filipino fishermen operated there. Then China seized the shoal and Chinese Coast Guard vessels have chased away Filipino fishermen ever since.

Just 250km from the Philippine coast and Subic Bay, where the US stations fighter jets and naval vessels, the shoal is in a particularly strategic place.

Its conversion into a military base would enable China to project military power across the South China Sea from a triangle of bases formed by the shoal, the Spratly archipelago to its south and the Paracel Islands farther to the west and closer to the Chinese mainland, Mr Shugart said.

On the heels of Mr Duterte's election, China and the Philippines began preparatory talks last month at a meeting in Hong Kong between former Philippine president Fidel Ramos and Mr Wu Shicun, president of the National Institute for South China Sea Studies, a Chinese government think-tank.

Still, no matter what comes of discussions between China and the Philippines, the long-term objective of control of the South China Sea remains, said Professor Shi Yinhong, a professor of international relations at Renmin University. "There just won't be a straight-line approach."

And even though Mr Duterte has spoken brashly about the US - calling for the removal of US Special Forces from the restive southern part of his country and using vulgar language about President Barack Obama - China may not find it so easy to gain his confidence, Prof Shi said.

Persuading the Philippines to abandon its ties to Washington and side with China, the way two smaller South-east Asian countries, Laos and Cambodia, consistently do, is unrealistic, he said.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 26, 2016, with the headline 'Beijing halts work on island to wean Manila off US alliance'. Print Edition | Subscribe