Lacking Danger in the South China Sea

I’ve tried a few times putting these thoughts on Twitter but I think it doesn’t fit the format. My analysis of the recent situation is relatively short, but not conducive to the medium. Here goes:

The first thing to understand is that, for a variety of reasons, the Philippines has almost no military projection power. Projection meaning being able to do things that are not on Philippine soil. Their air force consists of a few Vietnam-war era  recon planes and their navy’s flagship is a former US Coast Guard cutter built when Kennedy was president. The most powerful weapon in its inventory is a 3″ diameter gun. Meaning, it would be outclassed and sunk by even the meekest time traveling World War I warship.

So now there’s a war of words. China, apparently, is sending a small armada to deal with the Philippines. One of the Beijing Twitterati commented that, “sentiment on Weibo seems to overwhelmingly favor using force to solve Philippines South China Sea issue. Either the Philippines caves or there will be blood.” His rationale was that, the “government [is] already in midst of credibility crisis. Showing weakness, especially to a ‘little country’ like Philippines over sovereignty issues not an option.”

I understand where this is coming from. And in almost any other context this would make sense. But I don’t think this makes sense in context to the Philippines precisely because of that military issue. “There will be blood” implies combat. But combat with what where? And what, precisely, is the Philippine supposed to “cave” on?

So first, what is there for the Philippines to “cave” on? I only see three things: claiming the shoal as their own, patrolling the area, and harassing Chinese fishermen. An armada wouldn’t be able to stop the claims unless it went on to burn down Malacañang. Regime change and diplomacy are the only two ways to change the position of a recalcitrant foreign government. An armada could (and would) temporally stop the second and third issues. But then they’d just start again a few weeks or months later. It’s a soft, adaptive issue that can disappear and reappear at will.

His analysis would make more sense if there were Filipino marines on one of those reefs. They either move or they get shot at. There’s a pressure point in which military force can be allowed to work either through force or intimidation. But I don’t see any such fixed pressure point in those three issues. There’s nothing here that an armada can permanently change even if it went in with guns blazing. The Chinese armada will arrive and float around and… float around. The solo ‘blue water’ Filipino ship will wisely keep a distance. The Gregorio del Pilar is not going to charge into a 21st century fleet with 19th century weapons in its first year of commission.

Which leads to the most important point – I don’t see any way the Chinese could draw blood without wrecking three decades of careful diplomacy. They would be firing guns or missiles to stop a patrol, as the Philippine government has already demonstrated that it will back down during a dispute over illegal fishermen. It wouldn’t be a “war” or “combat.” If it rose to that level it it would just be a “sinking” and the entire event could last less than five minutes.

It would be cold-blooded murder and an international incident on par with North Korea’s unprovoked sinking of the Cheonan in 2010. But the difference is the world expects more of China than it does North Korea because China has worked so hard to build up it’s image of a “peacefully rising” giant. It doesn’t matter what the domestic pressure on Sina Weibo is. The international damage would take a decade to undo.

What’s more, it wouldn’t accomplish anything. It wouldn’t resolve the dispute. The Philippines would demand justice and wouldn’t waver on the core issue.  It would probably make Southeast Asian neighbors turn even more towards the US to form alliances against China. It would probably spark a naval arms race that the Chinese would lose. The US has a lot of old but competent ships it could ‘donate’ to its threatened friends.

But that’s not going to happen because combat isn’t going to happen. There’s not a thing to be gained from it and everything to lose.

The final point is that I think this is happening because the Philippines is so weak. The Chinese government can beat the war drums all they want, and as loud as they want, and no war is going to happen. It’s akin to bullying someone in a wheelchair that you know can’t punch back. Conversely, if the Chinese government beat war drums too loud against Vietnam or Japan things might actually get out of hand. If the PLA Navy sent a fleet to a disputed body of water with either of those countries, those countries would send their own boats out to counter them.

That would be a dangerous situation. This is not.

A end note is that this analysis only applies to China and the Philippines in the South China Sea today. Not the South China Sea in general, or China and the US, or a potentially more powerful Philippines in the future.

26 Comments

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26 responses to “Lacking Danger in the South China Sea

  1. Anthony D

    Another excellent piece. Although I think sooner or later, say within a decade, the PLA is going to flat-out demand an opportunity to try out its new toys and let off some steam. Placing bets on a border dispute with Nepal/Vietnam or blowing up a few rocks somewhere in the South China Seas

    • I was speaking to a defense policy journalist yesterday about this issue and he mentioned that the Philippines is likely getting a batch of F-16s. That would change the dynamics I just wrote about considerably – especially if the order came with some anti-ship missiles. I also wonder why the Philippines doesn’t rent, buy, or politely ask for some of the cheap, mass-produced Perry-class guided missile frigates the USN is retiring in bulk. Those are proper warships compared to the USCG cutters. They would put up a good fight against the PLA Navy (and air force) without breaking the bank.

      It wouldn’t take a lot of hardware to be militarily competitive against whatever the Chinese could move that far south. I think that would be a real danger zone. Both countries would start acting more aggressively and commanders on both sides would want to “prove something.” But right now, this is a game only China is playing. They can do live fire exercises off the shoal and there’s nothing the Philippines would do but complain. I don’t imagine the Philippines will sit it out forever. I imagine soon enough they’ll have chess pieces they can move around too.

  2. Pingback: China bangs the war drum over South China SeaBusiness & Financial News, Breaking US & International News | News24h.infoNews, Travel, Weather, Entertainment, Sports, Technology, Business & Financial News, Breaking US & International News |

  3. Pingback: China bangs the war drum over South China Sea « escapetophilippines

  4. RickJoe

    “The final point is that I think this is happening because the Philippines is so weak. The Chinese government can beat the war drums all they want, and as loud as they want, and no war is going to happen. It’s akin to bullying someone in a wheelchair that you know can’t punch back. Conversely, if the Chinese government beat war drums too loud against Vietnam or Japan things might actually get out of hand. If the PLA Navy sent a fleet to a disputed body of water with either of those countries, those countries would send their own boats out to counter them.”

    Incorrect. The fact that the chinese are standing so firm on this issue, is because if they show weakness, then other challengers in other sovereignty related disputes could use it as a precedent to bolster their own claims. SCS islands, Taiwan, territory disputes with Japan, border disputes with India — even Tibet. These reefs are the first dominos of potentially many. Look at it this way — if the phillippines can challenge sovereignty by sending a naval vessel to intercept fishing vessels, what kind of look does that send to other, slightly more powerful countries on the state of china’s willingness to defend her territories. Hell, other countries could see the political transition as a moment of weakness in the government and seek to push their claims more aggressively. However China will almost certainly not be the one to fire the first shot — even though the world’s media will paint it as the aggressor.

    These warnings are a not so subtle way of saying “if you don’t back down, things could happen,” and is a larger message of deterrence to the rest of the world that china is willing to defend her sovereignty.

    • Vietnam intercepts fishing vessels too, as did the Japanese. And both within the past twelve months. What makes this unique is sending out this mini-armada as a response. I don’t think China would do that to either Japan or Vietnam because, as I said, things could quickly escalate out of control. China and Vietnam have come to blows more than a few times in the Paracal Islands. I buy into the Mearsheimer thesis that just having antagonistic militaries bumping up against each other is extremely dangerous. At the moment, the Philippines simply has no means of fighting a modern naval battle. There’s not a single anti-ship missile in the country that I know of nor a platform (either by air or sea) to launch it. I don’t think there’s any scenario where the Philippine navy won’t keep it’s distance from the Chinese fleet unless those boats are trying to sail into Manila Bay.

    • What the funny here is that China using its BULLYING tactics, describing to defend their sovereignty which almost a thousand miles away from main land world knows OIL is their motive and very close to other shores, such a bunch of joke…. anyway thanks to your reply, I really appreciate it. Good Luck

      • compcj

        Distance makes no sense, Guahan is 3500 miles+ from Hawaii, and 1600 miles from Manila, but it belongs to US. Kinmen County is just a mile away from China Mainland, but it belongs to Taiwan. OIL is not only China’s motive, also Phillipine’s. the shoal hasn’t been in Phillipine’s sight for a hundred year since their 1898 constitution, until they found nearby oil and passed 2699 Bill to claim the shoal in 2007.

      • I’d recommend reading the two additional posts I made, titled “Differences in Legal Claims”

      • Ok, distance does’t makes sense, but “BULLYING” is that makes sense for you? China is not only a BULLY CHINESE but also a ROBBER…. and who told you that Philippine Sea was not in their sight for hundred years, do you think the BULLY CHINESE the first human on earth? GREEDY CHINA…

      • compcj

        please let me apologize for my rudeness and unpolite first, but i had to say actually I enjoy seeing you guys keep on posting like this.
        Debating makes no sense either, and that’s what i have learned these days.

      • The Nutbox

        @compcj

        Distance doesn’t matter only in so far as who owns the land features are concerned, but it does in terms of questions regarding who owns the waters around it are. The Philippine claim on the land features are not based on proximity, but based on effective occupation. The shoal had been res nulius when the Philippines effectively occupied it in 1965. The 2009 Baselines Bill merely legalized that occupation domestically.

      • Anonymous

        Distance do make sense because the disputed area are just pieces of rocks, it will belong to the nearest landmass. If it was an island that was capable of human habitation and by relation had people living on it, then things would be more complicated.

  5. aris

    Indeed, a filipino’s patience is long.. but when the wick runs out expect a “klingon’s warpath” response.

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  7. The Nutbox

    Exactly my thoughts when I wrote this: http://thenutbox.wordpress.com/2012/04/27/manila-should-try-to-understand-how-beijing-works-too/

    Also, I think that a sinking of Philippine ship in the area would most likely provoke a response from the US, as I wrote here: http://thenutbox.wordpress.com/2012/05/02/clintonhandsoffdeclaration/

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  9. Pingback: China plays a dangerous game. « The Nutbox

  10. Tashi

    china has always been a big bully and it will never stop its rhetorics.

  11. highlander

    A really biased piece of article. First of all, China is not “apparently sending a small armada” to the area. During this incident, China has only send her Fishery Administration Ships and Marine Surveillance Ships which are civilian law enforcement vessels. Secondly, this whole incident start when Philipino authorities tried to arrest Chinese fisherman operating in the disputed waters, not the other way round. We should note that both Chinese and Philipino fisherman had been operating in this area for centuries and the Chinese Government had never arrested Philipino fisherman. Even at this moment with Chinese Fishery ships in the area, both Chinese and Philipino fisherman are still operating peacefully around the islands whereas when Philipino authories was in control, they tried to chase away every chinese fishing boat.

    • BRAVO, BRAVO!!! Whatever you says you can’t ever remove to the eyes of the world the BLOOD stained in your ”BULLY-CHINESE” government’s hands when they’d massacred the Vietnamese and robbed their Islands. Now you’re telling small armada? The BELLICOSE CHINESE has sent dozens of fishing vessels harvesting endangered species and corals, escorted by frigates with fully armed missiles and gunboats harassing by bumping the Filipino fishermen’s boats if not leaving, inside the Exclusive Economic Zone of the Philippines which their territory,
      “VERY FUNNY China.”

      In 1995 the “BULLY-CHINESE” robbed the mischief reef which is few miles away from the main Island of Palawan obviously inside the Philippines’ Exclusive Economic Zone. “SHAME ON YOU CHINESE”

      Few weeks ago an heavily-armed frigate ran aground ridiculously for several days in Half moon Shoal due to incompetent of the Chinese Navy supported and assisted by 5 barbaric Chinese Navy frigates inside the Exclusive Economic Zone of the Philippines. And it has been reported that fighter jets from greedy forces flying over in that area. Again that’s very close to the main Island of Palawan, What they’re doing there, patrolling to the Philippine territory? “Does it small armada your talking about?”

      THE BARBARIANS WERE OFTEN READY TO SATISFY THEIR THIRST ON BLOOD….

      In Scarborough Shoal, It’s a mandate to the Philippine Coast Guard and Navy to guard its territory against poachers or illegal entry which is inside the Philippine EEZ, so they deserved to arrest the alien. Now you’re telling the Philippines started the dispute? “GREEDY CHINESE”

      CHINA IS NO ONE’S FRIEND, AND EVERYONE’S ENEMY.

    • Follow up comments:
      You were trying to scores in a ridiculous way. The “BULLY-CHINESE” sends only Fishery Administrations Ship and Marine Surveillance Ships just to show they’re peace loving people, but the fact they’ve fully stained bloody hands, the world knows it with wide eyes open.

      The Chinese government had never been arrested Filipino fishermen, you’re right. How come the Chinese will arrest the other countries’ fishermen right in their territories, that’s why it has never been happened. They knew that ever since, only recently the bellicose government became aggressive because of oil and other resources in West Philippine Sea, undermining the international law UNCLOS.

      “BULLY-CHINESE” invented their own international law of the sea and implemented it, by BULLYING small countries.

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  13. berhai

    this situation could spark a war that other countries will have to fight.

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