Sunday, March 09, 2008

Mischief on Mischief Reef, Part 1

Mischief on Mischief Reef, Part 1

The relentless persistence of the Senate hearings to uncover massive corruption bared by the National Broadband Network is now on the trail of the Chinese offer of liberal loans as bait for ambitious administration projects. Being bruited is an amount of $8 Billion, large enough to strike deep suspicion among political outsiders. One of the ongoing projects became a done deal allegedly with a string attached – a joint Phi-Sino oil exploration in the Spratlys Islands, which is now the focus of the next Senate probe.
Flashback to 1998 when I wrote an article titled Mischief on Mischief Reef excerpted below.
Mischief on Mischief Reef I
In early November of centennial year 1998, national newspapers bannered head- lines about another Sino invasion -- not the steady stream thru airports -- but by sea. According to the media, the Chinese are again causing mischief in their lake called the South China Sea on an atoll named Mischief Reef where tie Sinos have expanded their fisherman's barracks. The reef is part of the Spratly Island group (the Chinese call it Nansha) and one of the several claimed by the Philippines.
The hoopla stems from President Estrada's response to the intrusion, blurting out that he ordered a blockade which would block the entry and exit of the interlopers. As expected, the Foreign Affairs Secretary and the presidential spokesman quietly stepped forward to explain the meaning of the order as merely “intensified surveillance and monitoring” and that the international law doctrine of innocent passage will be respected. The officials went on to declare that there was no intent to assume a posture of confrontation and that we will conform to a policy of diplomacy to address the issue.
This sane course of action is certainly reassuring given the well known disparity of military strengths between ours and China.
Should we expect some support from ASEAN? Not with Malaysia's Mahatir peeved with Erap on the Anwar issue and the move to revive the Sabah claim. Not with Vietnam still licking the wounds inflicted by China when their Navies clashed over the disputed islands in 1998. And the other ASEAN states are engrossed in their own security problems.
How about good old U.S.A.? Not when this superpower is courting the vote of China, a fellow permanent member of the UN Security Council, on two hot raging issues --- the latest Iraqi defiance and the Serbia-NATO standoff. And our lukewarm handling of the VFA would certainly not invite support. In the eyes of America, the Mischief Reef matter would be scoffed at as just a storm in a teacup.

So it boils down to a one on one affair in the event of a confrontation. It is now apparent that our government has presumed the fisherman’s shelterto be of military nature, not the innocent structures the Chinese want us to believe. And this raises the chances of dangerous confrontation, as it could easily turn into a skirmish and exchange of gunfire by just one hothead with a nervous trigger finger on either side. Setting strict rules of engagement such as keeping approach limits by patrols, or of no-provocation orders would not ensure that unwanted incidents won’t occur.
During one of the TV newscasts of ABS-CBN on the Spratlys I was astonished to spot what looked like a familiar navy vessel, a minesweeper that was among the several patrol craft I commanded as a young naval officer. The venerable vessel was vintage World War II, a second-hand gift from the U.S. Navy to its poor protégé the Philippine Navy (PN). If this is one of the 13 patrol craft listed by ABS-CBN as part of the PN fleet, I can understand the dire need for modernization.
Next, I looked up the numbers on the opposing sides. These were the odds, circa 1995 (based on the book “The Military Balance1994-1995, published by the International Institute for Strategic Studies, London*):
Total Armed Forces (PLA) --- 2,930,000 active
1,200,000 reserve
Navy: 260,000 men with 18 destroyers, 37 frigates, 370 patrol craft, 217 missile craft, 160 torpedo boats, 121 minesweepers/layers51 amphibious craft, 164 support craft, 25 bombers, 130 torpedo bombers, 600 fighter planes, 68 helicopters, 50 submarines, and scores of missiles and rockets including modified Exocet missiles (the weapon an Argentine plane used in the Falkland War to sink a British Destroyer), plus outposts in the Paracels and Spratlys.
Airforce: 470,000 men, 120 medium bombers (some nuclear capable), 350 light bombers, 500 FGAs, 4,000 fighter jets, 600 transport aircraft, 400 helicopters.
Strategic Missile Forces: 90,000 Strategic Rocket units, 14 Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles, 60 Intermediate Range Ballistic Missiles (nuclear capability assumed).
The 1992 military budget of China was officially $6.8 Billion but that figure vastly understates real military spending because it does not include capital expenditures, research and development, and procurement of weapons. The budget is increased about 14% each year, supported by a phenomenal economic growth rate of 10% over the last decade or so. The economic boom and a $13 Billion annual trade surplus bolstered military shopping missions to places like former enemy Russia for tanks, ships, weapons and an aircraft carrier from Ukraine.

Total Armed Forces --- 106,000 active
131,000 reserves
Navy: 23,000 men(including 8,500 Marines), one frigate (ex USS Cannon), 58 patrol craft, 11 support craft, 35 inshore craft, one Islander and 8 Defender aircraft. (Note: These figures are now split between the Navy and Coast Guard after the latter was demilitarized and transferred to the Department of Transportation and Communications. Three used patrol boats were bought in 1997 from Hong Kong at a cost of $12.3 million – ODG)
Airforce: 15,500 men, a squadron of 7F-5s, four squadrons COIN aircraft, three helicopter squadrons of Bell and Hueys (C-130s not listed)

Obviously, the disparity in forces does not encourage saber-rattling on our part and prudence urges a tactical advance to the rear.
Lately, Foreign Affairs Secretary Siason made public his assessment that China has a grand design to dominate the Pacific (reminiscent of Japan’s East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere of World War II), although he did not give specifics and the basis for such a conclusion. Now comes a Congressman, a former Navy Captain and US Naval Academy graduate, claiming he has knowledge of a study published in a British Royal Navy paper that supports the view that the structures are the initial steps to a military take-over and de facto jurisdiction of the Spratlys.
The solon’s information, if true, lends credence to the grand design theory and coincides with the assessment in early 1990’s of Asia-watchers who studied the geopolitics of the region and finding China’s expansionary moves do show a pattern for a grand design. Tibet, HongKong, Paracels, all gobbled in the Dragon’s maw, and very soon, Macau. Maybe even Spratlys and Taiwan.
A Chinese law passed in February 25, 1992 spells out the Chinese concept of extended sovereignity, reasserting claims in the South China Sea. The Law described its “territorial sea and contiguous zones” claimed the Spratlys (Nansha), the Paracels (Xisha)the Pescadores (Penghu)which lies between China and Taiwan, Pratas bank (Zungsha), and surrounding waters and airspace, and stipulates that China reserves the right to use force to defend the areas. This clearly challenges UNCLOS which China has not ratified by August 1995.
In 1974 a Chinese naval force ejected a South Vietnamese garrison from the Paracel Islands some 400 km. south of the island province of Hainan, the southernmost point of China proper. Expanding further south, China then sunk 3 Vietnamese boats, killed 72 Vietnamese and took 6 islands in March 1988 in the Spratlys, about 400 km. south of the Paracels.
The Spratlys, a mix of islets, atolls and shoals, begin 402 km. off Southern Vietnam and end 169 km. north of Borneo. The area is believed to hold huge reserves of gas and oil, a factor in the territorial claims of the 6 remaining nations, (China, Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Philippines) France, Britain and Japan having dropped their claims long ago. China and Vietnam are presently drilling for gas and oil, and the Philippines is about to drill for gas. All claimants except Brunei maintain garrisons: Vietnam 20 islands, Philippines 8, Malaysia 3, Taiwan 1, China 6 plus.
Just how firm is our claim to justify the flexing of muscles (or rattling our balisongs, if you will) over territory that is almost constantly under water and in which only corals grow?
Note the carefully couched statements of Foreign Affairs Secretary Siason referring to the area as “within the exclusive economic zone” of the Philippines as defined by UNCLOS (United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea). But there seems to be a complication --- it appears we have yet to set our baselines.
In August 1996 an Australian professor and maritime expert broached the call for setting baselines. “The baselines will not determine or resolve any territorial disputes. So the Philippines can unilaterally declare the baselines because it is its right as it also claims Kalayaan Islands. I do think it is important if you finalize your baselines. As much as it is easier to criticize the Chinese over their drawn baselines in the Paracels, I urge you to make your archipelagic baselines within the rules.” He further stated the baselines can be drawn and not immediately including Sabah without prejudicing its claim on the territory.
But in February 1997, Secretary Siason warned that revising the country’s baselines to include the Spratly Islands would be a “dangerous move”, adding “unnecessary headaches would be created.” The warning was a riposte to the calls for baseline revision. To clinch his point, “you can … it is possible kung kaya mo. You can always draw the line, but do you have the resources to protect it?”
Still later, former Comelec Commissioner Haydee Yorac in her 1998 senatorial bid vowed to institute reforms in protecting the maritime interests of the country, explaining that the Philippines, an archipelagic state, “ has no clear policy about this. What is more alarming is the fact that we have not even established base points and base lines. So our maritime zones are open to challenges from neighboring countries, as in the case of the claims of other countries on the disputed Spratly Islands.”
And note what legal giant and Constitution expert J.C. Bernas says on national territory: … “In fact, you don’t establish jurisdiction over a piece of territory by claiming it in a solemnly enacted statute or even in the Constitution. Recognition of territorial rights is a matter of international law. Our Constitution and our statutes are municipal laws that bind only ourselves. Even a clear and unequivocal claim made in the Constitution or in statutes does not establish a rightthat other countries recognize. And a claim not universally recognized will always be precarious.”
Included in the opinion is an allusion to the metes and bounds of our territory defined by the 1898 Treaty of Paris between the U.S. and Spain at the conclusion of the Spanish-American war, in indirect reply to the grumbling over the loss of 230,000 square miles of “Treaty” territorial sea when we ratified UNCLOS and embraced the exclusive economic zone concept.
Asked to explain the activities at the structures, the Chinese ambassador said, “These are purely fishermen’s shelters undergoing repairs and rehabilitation.” Left unsaid was the dictum that possession is nine-tenths of the law, and that the shelters will be permanent (in their possession), even if we are naïve enough to accept the “share and develop” offer, making us tenants in a place we claim to be ours.
So, the frenzy in top level officialdom has not abated, stirred somewhat by a few sectors of media which use unfortunate language such as “the nation being on a war footing.”
The whole episode poses grim and pernicious ramifications. If it ever develops into a shooting, high intensity conflict, we could face the terrible aspect of seeing the cream of our youth, the ROTC, sent into battle ---as cannon fodder, an utterly unacceptable culmination of the mischief on Mischief Reef.


Tongue's Wrath said...

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The rising eyebrow and a blinking mole says it all. Here is one workaround.

You can rightclick the image download it to your 'puter. You can then upload it via a new post into the main body. Copy that code and manually insert it in the sidebar. It becomes a permanent feature. Or you can link it to my sidebar picture's filename.

Tongue's Wrath said...

Btw, it's a very informative article you have in this thread, navyman!