A call for calm and balance in the Spratlys dispute

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MAURO GIA SAMONTE

Conclusion of a 2-part series from yesterday
In the period of the Asean Foreign Ministers’ Meeting in the first week of August 2017, the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI), a publication on maritime concerns in the Asia Pacific region, published an article titled: “Vietnam Builds Up Its Remote Outposts.” Here is how the article delineates the issue:

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“Reports suggest that Hanoi recently halted oil and gas drilling in Block 136-03 on Vanguard Bank in response to a Chinese threat of force against Vietnamese outposts in the area. That claim is impossible to verify, but the story highlights the vulnerability of Vietnam’s many smaller installations and around the Spratly Islands. AMTI has previously examined Vietnam’s expansion of all but 2 of the 10 islets it occupies (Amboyna Cay and Namyit Island have seen no discernible reclamation work).

“But the majority of the features Vietnam occupies are not rocks or islands; they are submerged reefs or banks on which Hanoi has built small, isolated structures. These facilities are difficult to defend or resupply, making them extremely vulnerable. Vietnam realizes this and has modestly expanded many of them since 2014, when relations with Beijing hit a historic low following a standoff over the deployment of a Chinese rig in disputed waters off the Paracels.

“In many cases, Hanoi has constructed multiple facilities on a single reef or bank, leading to confusion about how many features it actually occupies. Vietnam has 48 or 50 outposts (it is unclear whether two artificial islands on Cornwallis South Reef damaged by a storm in late 2015 have been abandoned) spread across 27 features.”

According to the article, Vietnam’s outposts in the South China Sea fall into three categories, namely, occupied islets, concrete buildings atop reefs which look like pillboxes, and isolated platforms constructed on undersea banks. While China and Taiwan consider the six banks on which these structures are built to be part of the Spratly Islands, the Vietnamese government does not, but rather claims those banks to form part of the continental shelf of Vietnam.

AMTI records show that of the three nations having occupied territories in the Spratly island chain, Vietnam is tops with 48, followed by the Philippines with 9 and China with 8. And over the past two years, the publication made updates attesting to the Vietnamese doing untrammeled land reclamation activities in the Spratlys, building runways, hangars and other air force facilities thereon. The updates show: November 7, 2016, Vietnam begins extending its 2,500-foot runway, projected to reach a length of 4,000 feet, while constructing two new hangars capable of accommodating Vietnam’s PZL M28B maritime surveillance aircraft and CASA C-295 transport planes; November 15, 2016, Vietnam is reported by Reuters as having deployed artillery rocket launchers to the Spratlys; and December 1, 2016, Vietnam nearly completes its 4,000-foot runway capable of accommodating most planes in the Vietnamese air force, excepting only the large Antonov An-26 transport plane and P3 surveillance aircraft once acquired.

But certainly, China has built the truly formidable war facilities. As attested to as far back as 2012 by then outgoing Intelligence Chief of the US Navy’s Pacific Fleet, Capt. James E. Fannel, in a speech before admirals and other officers of the US Navy, China by then already had eight military installations on seven reefs on the Spratly Islands, six of them and the features they contained being:

Johnson South Reef, known in the Philippines as Mabini Reef – in which about 10 hectares had been reclaimed for their transformation into a military base, containing a three-story concrete building ringed with gun emplacements and a helipad;

Mischief Reef – a three-story concrete building ringed with five octagonal concrete structures. It has searchlights and radar.

Cuarteron Reef – a permanent reef fortress, supply platforms, and naval and anti-aircraft guns. An airstrip is reportedly being planned.

Fiery Cross Reef – A marine observation station designated in 2011 as “main command headquarters,” equipped with surface and air search radars and armed with at least four high-powered naval guns.

Gaven Reef – a permanent reef fortress, supply platforms and harbor for navy patrol boats.

Subi Reef – a permanent reef fortress and supply platforms that can house troops, has a helipad and is armed with four twin-barrel 37mm naval guns. Also houses a Doppler weather radar.

China already maintains a military outpost on Woody Island in the Paracels. Vietnam and Taiwan are contesting the island, which currently has a population of more than 1,000 and features an artificial harbor capable of docking vessels of up to 5,000 tons and an airport with a 2,700-meter runway capable of handling fighter aircraft.

Johnson South Reef, which is also being claimed by Vietnam, was the scene of a bloody confrontation in 1988 that resulted in the death of 70 Vietnamese and the sinking of two Vietnamese boats and the Chinese occupying the reef.

Evidently learning from this previous debacle, Vietnam just backed off from its oil and gas drilling in Block 136-03 on Vanguard Bank when China threatened to use force against Vietnamese outposts in the area. But this episode nonetheless demonstrates Vietnam’s predilection to creating trouble in the area, given no deterrents. Its evidently propaganda demolition campaign against China right in the halls hosting the Asean Foreign Ministers Meeting simply mirrored on the diplomatic front the bare-faced belligerence characterizing its militaristic adventures. This appears to be the convenient substitute for the role the United States might have schemed for President Duterte when it groomed him for the Philippine presidency, but which went awry with the Philippine President immediately striking up friendly relations with China once he got into office. Certainly, in the vacuum created by Duterte’s veering away from the west in foreign relations, Vietnam’s saber rattling against China perfectly fits into the US agenda of making trouble in the region as leverage for its active intervention.

But certainly China has emerged out of the sinister Vietnam scheme the far better warrior. By advancing the doctrine of being merely “effective” as a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea, it imparted to its Asean neighbors its sincere desire to settle the conflict in the area in a brotherly manner, and by insisting on the principle of that Code being “not legally binding,” it pulled the rug off the feet of the United States in its hidden agenda to make trouble erupt in the region. Here, calm and circumspection become the better option.

In the end, China lives true to the classic Sun Tzu dictum: “The best general is one who wins a war without fighting a battle.”

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