Mark Collins – South China Sea Update: Scarborough Shoal, China and Philippines

Further to this July post,

China Loses South China Sea Arbitration–Calls Decision “political farce”

a recent development:

Prospect of Philippine Thaw Slows China’s Plans in South China Sea

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 rumored to be on their way there.

But the election last spring of President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines, who has since showered threats and epithets on the United States [e.g. here], 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 right 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, these analysts say…

In July, an international 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

Three of seven artificial islands in the Spratlys are designed as military bases, the American military says. Among them, Subi Reef has a harbor bigger than Pearl Harbor, and another, Mischief Reef, has a land perimeter nearly the size of the District of Columbia’s, a submarine warfare officer in the United States Navy, Thomas Shugart, said in a paper issued this past week.

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

Scarborough Shoal, with a deep lagoon covering nearly 60 square miles, offers an even bigger prize as a potential Chinese military base. “The picture would become even worse were China to build and militarize a similar island base at Scarborough Shoal,” Mr. Shugart wrote…

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.

Anticipation regarding China’s plans for Scarborough has been building since March, when, at a meeting in Washington, President Obama warned President Xi Jinping of China against taking action that could activate American treaty obligations to the Philippines, a senior State Department official said [1951 mutual defence treaty text here]…

One wonders how long the Dragon might play nice with the Philippines. The activation of those treaty obligations would be  pretty scary.

Imagery of Chinese construction activities, including military, at South China Sea islands is here.

Mark Collins, a prolific Ottawa blogger, is a Fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute; he tweets @Mark3Ds

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