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.