A lot of Filipinos seem to have cheered the American guided-missile ship USS Lassen’s taunt at Beijing by its act of breaching the other day the 12-nautical mile zones around Subi and Mischief Reefs which China claims are part of its territorial waters.
The Chinese were furious, accusing the US of militarizing the Spratly islands area. Indeed, the Chinese have played it smart: Its vessels at the disputed areas, even those it sent in 2012 to grab Panatag Shoal from us, aren’t warships of the People’s Liberation Army, but technically civilian vessels of the Chinese Coast Guard, China Marine Surveillance and its Fisheries Law Enforcement Command.
The USS Lassen’s journey is likely politically motivated, as the ruling Democratic Party’s Achilles heel in the presidential elections next year is its rival Republican Party’s charges that it has been weak in projecting its military power (think: ISIS’ rampage in Syria and Iraq, with Russia, not the US, now the avenging angel in the area.).
Indeed, the Republican Party can hurl the accusation that the transformation of submerged rocks and atolls in the Spratlys into a chain of islands where Chinese military airstrips and fortresses could be built in the coming years occurred under a Democratic president.
President Obama probably got worried that he might have appeared too chummy with Chinese President Xi Jinping during the Chinese leader’s recent three-day state visit to the US, so he rushed some US Navy standing operation plan to challenge the Chinese in the disputed Spratly area right after President Xi left.
I hope the Chinese realize it’s all for show, and I suspect Obama himself told President Xi not to overreact.
However, former security adviser and congressional candidate, Roilo Golez, in his Facebook post hailed the US move, claiming that “China blinked.” “The US gave enough warning about this sail-by. It wasn’t a sneak sortie,” he wrote. “I surmise that the US gave China sufficient time, around two weeks, to mobilize its assets in the area, like the usual white ships, to try to stop the announced Freedom of Navigation run. The message was, I am coming, stop me if you can.’”
I hope Golez is right. My sense, though, is that the USS Lassen’s sail-by was unnecessary, even a blunder on the part of the US. It would backfire, with adverse consequences for us and Vietnam, the two ‘hot’ claimants of the Spratlys.
The USS Lassen is very serious stuff. It’s an Arleigh Burke-class destroyer, or one of the largest American destroyers. It’s been designed for combat, equipped with guided missiles of the most advanced kind and with a structure that gives it a low radar profile and high speed in the oceans
Excuse for militarization
The USS Lassen’s pass-by, though, would be the excuse for the Chinese to militarize the area, and to build military fortifications on the artificial islands it built on submerged atolls and reefs.
The Chinese have been waiting for just such an excuse to test its PLA Navy’s (PLAN) brand-new blue-water capabilities, especially its first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, which was commissioned three years ago.
They couldn’t, as deploying the PLAN warships into its most logical “sphere of influence” – the South China Sea – would be met by universal outrage over such incursion into disputed territories, especially as the Philippines had filed a “court suit” – if you could call arbitration that – which seeks to nullify all of Chinese territorial claims in the South China Sea.
The USS Lassen’s voyage really accomplishes nothing, if one really thinks about it. Do you think the Chinese would stop fortifying their new artificial islands, or give up their claim over the disputed islands in the South China Sea just because of the “sail-by” of a single destroyer, even if it is one of the US’ most advanced sea-faring weapons systems?
Its only accomplishment would be to give the Chinese the excuse now to send their own navy warships into the area and turn their artificial islands into military fortifications, then tell the world, “We’re just preparing to defend ourselves if the US again sends another of its combat-ready warships, or even more.”
The reason I’ve become cynical about the US policy and actions in the South China Sea is the fact that they didn’t lift a finger when our bungling President lost Panatag Shoal (Scarborough Shoal) in 2012 to the Chinese, for which President Aquino should be condemned by this nation.
In April 12, 2012 Aquino thought that reality was just like the war games he plays on his X-Box, and ordered our only warship – a refurbished US Coast Guard ship, the BRP Gregorio del Pilar – to Panatag Shoal to escort vessels of the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR, of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources). The BFAR tried to arrest Chinese fishermen aboard eight fishing boats in the shoal’s lagoon. However, Chinese Maritime Surveillance and a 3401-class Coast Guard patrol ship – one of its biggest – arrived and blockaded the mouth of the shoal.
Warship turns tail
Aquino, for some reason, suddenly ordered the BRP Gregorio del Pilar to turn tail and return to its Palawan port. Navy Flag Officer in Command Alexander Pama told the media that the ship had “to replenish fuel and food provisions.” That was a very lame excuse: Why couldn’t those provisions be supplied by smaller ships?
The standoff lasted the whole months of April and May, with the Philippine navy ships “detained” in the shoal by the Chinese vessels blockading the exit.
Senator Antonio Trillanes 4th, whom Aquino designated as his special envoy to resolve the standoff, claimed that while he was still negotiating with the Chinese for a simultaneous withdrawal, he suddenly received a message from the President on June 4 telling him that the BFAR vessels had already left the shoal, but that the Chinese vessels had stayed put, reneging on an agreement to also move out.
“I asked him who agreed with what, since I was just hammering out the details of the sequential withdrawal, because the mouth of the shoal was too narrow for a simultaneous withdrawal,” Trillanes reported in a written account. The President told me that (Foreign Affairs Secretary) del Rosario told him about the agreement reached in Washington.”
The Chinese have not left the Panatag Shoal since, with its Coast Guard and other civilian ships now guarding it. The Chinese have shooed away Philippine government vessels, as well as Filipino fishermen many nautical miles away, from the shoal. Unknown to most Filipinos, Aquino lost Philippine territory.
A November 2014 article by an American think tank, the Center for Naval Analyses (CNA), matter-of-factly pointed out:
“From its perspective, China resolved the sovereignty dispute with the Philippines over Scarborough Shoal in 2012 when it established control over the shoal. Again, it is unlikely to relinquish it. The government of the Philippines is in no position to even begin to contemplate the use of force to recover Scarborough.”
Two different sources claimed that Aquino asked Washington for help through Del Rosario, who had to go to Washington, D.C. to personally deliver the message. The message was for the US to send a warship to ensure that there would be simultaneous withdrawal from Panatag Shoal. Aquino and del Rosario were simply ignored, which is the reason the standoff lasted for several weeks.
The same CNA article emphasized: “The United States is not going to become involved in any attempt to expel the Chinese (from the Spratlys islands).”
And now some people think that a US destroyer will come to the Philippines’ aid over our Spratly claims?
www.rigobertotiglao.com for past columns