WHILE taking up my Masters in Public Administration at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, I was allowed to cross-enroll and take some subjects at the Harvard Business School. There were five of us Filipinos under the Mason’s Program: Nieves Confessor, Alberto Lim, Rufo de Vera, Angelo Reyes and myself. If I remember right, all of us in the Filipino group cross-enrolled at the business school to take up the course, Negotiation, under Professor Linda Hill. It was one of my favorite subjects, and one item that really stuck in my mind is the term “BATNA,” or “Better alternative to a negotiated agreement”.
The relevance and importance of BATNA comes to the fore now that we are about to negotiate with China in resolving our maritime dispute. Our negotiators must know what China’s BATNA is. Why? Because not doing so could lead the other party to walk out of the negotiations and we will be left with no other alternative except to go to war. Not only do we get war, we will also be prevented from getting a single drop of oil, or gas, or fish in the area. And we will be faced with a never-ending conflict with a giant neighbor for decades, if not centuries. And no other country can help us on this except ourselves, not even the vaunted might of the United States.
So, what is this thing called BATNA as applied to China? To answer this question, we must find out why China built those artificial islands, three of which have runways three kilometers long. We must find out why China is so insistent on maintaining its presence on Scarborough Shoal. Why is China prepared to go to war with the United States and its allies for those so-called “barren rocks” (the term used by US geopolitical strategist Robert Kaplan) that seemingly have no geostrategic value? Why would China risk even a nuclear war for these islands in the South China Sea/West Philippine Sea?We should answer the question: What is it that will drive China to walk out of the negotiations with the Philippines and opt for war instead, because they feel that war is a better alternative to a negotiated agreement? What is it that will drive China to risk war with anyone who will step or cross this “red line”?
There are two underlying reasons for China’s BATNA.
The first major reason is that China’s very survival as a nation and civilization literally depends on those so-called “barren rocks”. How so? The Scarborough Shoal is one of the contested areas that lies close to the Manila Trench. The Manila Trench is the deepest portion of the South China Sea that can allow US submarines to maneuver surreptitiously and approach China’s east coast near Taiwan and occupy firing positions for a first nuclear strike some 200 to 300 kilometers from China’s coastline.
The Manila Trench is easily accessible from Subic Bay in the Philippines by US Ohio class nuclear submarines. Each Ohio class submarine carries 154 Tomahawk land attack cruise missiles with a range of 2,500 kilometers, and each missile armed with a 200-kiloton nuclear warhead. Each of these warheads is more than 10 times that used in Hiroshima (15 kilotons). If five or more of these US Ohio class nuclear submarines were to launch a first strike against China’s east coast where China’s industrial base and most of its nearly 1.4 billion population is concentrated, then the Chinese nation as we know it will cease to exist–in just a matter of minutes! Hence, China needs to establish its presence at Scarborough Shoal to prevent this worst-case scenario from happening.
The figure above shows the Manila Trench, the only portion of the South China Sea with enough depth to allow US nuclear submarines coming from, say, Subic Bay in the Philippines to secretly approach the eastern coast of China for a surprise first nuclear strike.
The second major reason why China built those artificial islands, some of which contain runways, is to prevent any potential naval blockade by the US Seventh Fleet of the Malacca Strait and other straits in the vicinity (i.e., Sunda, Lombok, Makassar, etc.). China’s oil from the Persian Gulf and Africa, and China’s trade to Europe, the Middle East and Africa, pass through these vital straits. A US blockade of these chokepoints can cause the whole Chinese economy to grind to a halt. Hence, China is prepared to go to war with anyone trying to implement the Permanent Court of Arbitration ruling, no matter if that war be nuclear or conventional. China will use those artificial islands with runways as forward bases to prevent any attempt at a naval blockade.
The map above shows the Straits of Malacca and other nearby straits. A blockade of these vital straits where China’s oil and trade pass through could force the Chinese economy to grind to a halt. China built those artificial islands to prevent the US Seventh Fleet from attempting that option.
These are the two main reasons why China built those artificial islands with runways. China is prepared to go to war to defend its rights to these islands, even if it means a nuclear war with the US and its North Atlantic Treaty Organization and other allies like Japan, Australia, Singapore and the Philippines.
Philippine negotiators should know these BATNA of the other side. Ignorance of these factors may lead us blindly into war. And if that war goes nuclear, the Philippines will get its share of nukes because of itsEnhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) and Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) with the United States.
A graduate of the Philippine Military Academy Class of 1967and the Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University(1990), retired Brig. Gen. Victor N. Corpus spent five years with the communist New People’s Army (1971-76); was detained for 10 years under martial law and sentenced to death by musketry; but later became Chief, Intelligence Service of the Armed Forces of the Philippines.