When China stealthily took Panatag Shoal or Bajo de Masinloc (also called Scarborough Shoal) from the Philippines in 2012, we could only grit our teeth in anger and disbelief.
Now, the significance of that takeover for China is emerging. And the importance of the shoal to our country has likewise emerged.
According to a report in the Wall Street Journal on April 27, Scarborough Shoal could emerge as a new potential flashpoint in the standoff between the United States and China in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea).
The new development consists of this.
For some time now, Beijing has focused its attention on expanding and developing islands in the Spratly Islands chain.
About a month ago, the US military observed Chinese ships conducting survey work around a clump of rocks, sandbars and coral reefs in Panatag/Scarborough Shoal, which is far from the Spratlys.
Panatag/Scarborough Shoal is 120 nautical miles off the coast of the Philippines, and just 200 nautical miles from Manila. It is around 470 nautical miles from the closest point on the Chinese mainland.
It was because of this that the US flew three different air patrols near Panatag/Scarborough in recent days, including on April 19 and 21, according to US defense officials. The first of the flights, in a message to Beijing that the shoal is central to maritime security in the region, came just four days after Defense Secretary Ash Carter announced a series of joint patrols with the Philippines.
Last Monday, Beijing condemned the US flights, saying the shoal, which it calls Huangyan Island, is China’s “inherent territory.” China’s defense ministry accused the US of militarizing the WPS/SCS.
There is no sign yet of any land reclamation at the Chinese-held atoll, but there is growing concern among US and Philippine officials that Beijing plans to begin such work on Panatag/Scarborough.
Washington and its allies would consider it a major escalation. Beijing seized control of the shoal from Manila in 2012, whereas the artificial islands in the Spratlys were built on rocks and reefs already controlled by China.
Last week, Mr. Carter announced a number of initiatives to “modernize” the US-Philippines alliance, including a rotating deployment of US military aircraft at Clark Air Base in the Philippines.
The six US aircraft that flew near Panatag/Scarborough Shoal on April 19 are based at Clark.
The US has used its Navy and Air Force to challenge Chinese claims in the region, but has approached the dispute with caution, to avoid provoking a broader confrontation.
But, amid criticism over that approach from senior congressional and military figures, stronger action is likely if China moves to do reclamation work on Panatag/Scarborough Shoal, US officials said.
Steps could include economic sanctions, a buildup of military assets in the area, or taking a more overt position on the legal status of land features in the West Philippine/South China Sea.
China is conscious that any reclamation on Panatag/Scarborough would be provocative.
“Sizable land reclamation on Scarborough Shoal is out of the question,” said Zhu Feng, a security expert at Nanjing University.
While this cat-and-mouse game between China and the United States is ongoing, there’s nothing for the Philippines to do except play host to US military forces and play the concerned and loyal ally.
In an earlier analysis, published in the Washington Post and reprinted in The Manila Times, foreign affairs columnist David Ignatius opined that the US is heading toward a dangerous showdown with China.
One trigger for escalation, says Ignatius, could be China’s response to the forthcoming ruling by the arbitration panel in The Hague in the case brought by the Philippines in 2013. The panel will probably issue its ruling in May, and many knowledgeable experts predict that it will carefully validate the Philippine position.
China has denounced such arbitration of its maritime claims, and some US officials believe it may respond to an unfavorable ruling by declaring an air-defense identification zone, or “ADIZ,” in the South China Sea (West Philippine Sea) — in effect banning flights there without Chinese permission. This would present a new and dangerous provocation for Washington.
The Pentagon argues that the United States should immediately challenge any air-defense identification zone claim by flying US military planes into the area. That’s what happened in Nov. 2013 when B-52s immediately challenged an ADIZ declared by China in the East China Sea.
Some contend that the wisest course for the US would be to work with other Southeast Asian and other nations to challenge Chinese claims. This might include planes and ships from Australia, Singapore, India and European countries, for example.
The important thing is that China is not allowed to do whatever it wants.