Tillerson’s threat to keep China from its artificial islands hollow without Philippine support



REX Tillerson, US President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee for Secretary of State, stirred up a hornet’s nest when he condemned Chinese actions in the South China Sea, comparing the construction of artificial islands in disputed waters with Russia’s seizure of Crimea and saying that China’s access to the islands “is not going to be allowed.”

As to how this is to be done, he said: “The way we’ve got to deal with this is we’ve got to show backup in the region with our traditional allies in Southeast Asia.”

Just who are these traditional allies? Why, the Philippines and Thailand, of course. Thailand was condemned by the US when a coup in 2014 installed a military junta. Thailand enjoys close relations with China and is unlikely to join any embargo against Beijing.

As for the Philippines, its President, Rodrigo Duterte, has taken a hostile stance towards the United States since his inauguration last June. In October, while visiting China, he declared his “separation” from the US.

Surprisingly, this came after the Philippines scored a sweeping victory in its arbitration case with China, brought in 2013 under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. After three years of costly efforts, Manila won on most points but China refused to recognize the tribunal’s jurisdiction.

So, all Manila got was a moral victory. Duterte then had to decide his future course. The US, while backing the Philippines in its arbitration bid, had also been careful not to be sucked into a war with China.

In 1995, Mischief Reef, claimed by the Philippines, was taken over by China. Manila was furious but ultimately accepted that there was not much that it could do about it. Now, China has built an artificial island on the reef.

Hillary Clinton, as Secretary of State, adopted a strong pro-Philippine stance and even referred to the body of water in which disputed reefs lie as not the South China Sea but the West Philippine Sea. But rhetoric only goes so far.

In 2012, during a China-Philippines standoff lasting several weeks at Scarborough Shoal, claimed by both countries, Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario pointedly recalled that Clinton had said that the US “will honor its treaty obligations to the Philippines.”

However, the next day, the State Department urged that “diplomatic efforts be used to resolve the current situation.” An unnamed American official was quoted in the Washington Post as saying, “I don’t think we’d allow the US to get dragged into a conflict over fish or over a rock.”

That was a wake-up call for the Philippines. America’s commitment to the country’s security wasn’t what Manila had thought it was.

It was after China took control of the shoal that the Philippines decided to take its case to the arbitral tribunal, citing UNCLOS.

Before Duterte assumed the presidency on June 30, the American ambassador, Philip Goldberg, paid him a courtesy call. Quite naturally, they talked about China and, according to the Philippine leader, he asked the ambassador: “Are you with us? Or are you not with us?”

According to Duterte, the ambassador replied that the US would help if the Philippines was “attacked.”

Shortly afterward, Duterte assumed the presidency and The Hague-based tribunal issued its judgment. The Philippines had “won” but had little to show for the victory. China was still next door and the US was far away and, clearly, unwilling to take on the bully.

Perhaps it was the realization that, from a practical standpoint, its alliance with the US didn’t mean what Manila hoped it meant that Duterte decided that the wiser course was to make peace with China.

Now, without the Philippines, the US has little room for maneuver in the South China Sea. Duterte has threatened to nullify the agreement that his predecessor had signed to give the US access to five military bases. Without such facilities, any US military activity would be severely hobbled.

So far, China’s reaction to Tillerson has been mild. Asked whether American use of force would be legal, a foreign ministry spokesman said that “we do not take hypothetical questions.”

The mild Chinese reaction has been attributed to a desire for good relations with the Trump administration. But perhaps there is another reason as well: knowledge that even if Tillerson is confirmed as Secretary of State, there is little the US can do about the artificial islands. Without strong allies, the US cannot possibly implement Tillerson’s policy of keeping China off these manmade Chinese islands.

Twitter: @FrankChing1


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  1. Victor N. Corpus on

    The DF21D medium range ballistic missiles and the DF26 intermediate range ballistic missiles are concrete facts, Crisostomo. They are the first anti-ship ballistic missiles in existence and only China possess them at the moment. They can destroy US aircraft carriers 4,000 kms away from Chinese shores; or beyond Guam. Variants of the DF21Ds have also been tested successfully and found effective effective against satellites. If said missiles can hit satellites moving at hyper-sonic speeds; what more hitting stationary targets like US air bases containing US stealth fighters and bombers? These are not wishful thinking, Crisostomo. These facts are all over the internet. All you have to do is google them. These include the new “great walls” of China; such as the 5000 kms of strategic tunnels, the underground submarine and air bases, and China’s underwater anti-submarine “great wall”. Be reminded of Sun Tzu’s advice: “Know your enemy and know yourself; and you can fight a hundred battles with no danger of defeat”. Ignorance of the enemy, or underestimating him, lead to disaster.

  2. The South China Sea problem began when the Philippines closed Subic Bay. With the Americans gone it was time to move in. None of the others, the Philippines, Vietnamese, Indonesians or Taiwanese would be able to do much about it so it worked out perfectly for the Chinese. There is no support in the US for any wars in South East Asia. The Chinese will dominate the region for a thousand years no matter what is done in the short term. Filipinos want to be “western” but they had better lose the English and pick a Chines dialect to learn. That is where all this will leave them in the end.

  3. Victor N. Corpus on

    With or without Philippine support for the US, the US cannot possibly implement Tillerson’s policy of keeping China off these man-made Chinese islands. China had long been meticulously preparing for the eventuality of confronting US aircraft carrier battle groups, nuclear submarines, and some 400 military bases encircling China. With China’s “assassin’s mace” weapons, China now can wipe out all, repeat, all US aircraft carrier battle groups and all US military bases from Japan to Guam in no less than 30 minutes. And this will include the Iwakuni Marine Air Station where US keeps its F-35B stealth fighter aircraft in Japan. With US and allied air bases destroyed with the first few minutes when US decides to drive out China from those disputed islands, US air cover would be lost; and without air cover, the US and its allies are lost. As to the remaining US nuclear submarines remaining after the first missile volley, China’s other new underwater “great wall” can dispose of them. US satellite-based C4ISR can be eliminated by variants of the “assassin’s mace” as well. All these preparations made by China for an eventual military confrontation with the US and its allies are contained in the Art of War by Sun Tzu. Even if the US resort to nuclear war, China is already prepared for that as well; with its more than 5000 kms of strategic tunnels; underground air and submarine bases, and extensive subway systems in every major Chinese cities that double as civil defense system in a nuclear or conventional war.

    • crisstomo ibarra on

      wake up….stop dreaming…thats the effect of viewing too much of science fiction movies….when it is made in china..it is second rate…unreliable….

    • This is “stupid” a post. There is no way China will wipe out “all” of US Carriers and Pacific bases in 30 minutes. US has nuclear subs, powerful Navy and abundant Airforce to make sure China is obliterated at first strike, not to mention US top secret weapons ready to neutralize China as quickly as possible.

      While, Philippines strategic location is going to make things easier in a battle around SC Sea, it is not all that. US has China surrounded from all directions.


      While Obama was weak and uncommitted, Trump is a different animal. And he is proving that by nominating Hawks to be aggressive with China. I expect China to back down and give in. It certainly cannot afford to engage a war against America

    • You are presuming that all along, the US military has been stagnant and ignorant of the Chinese advances in military technology. Dream on.

  4. Tillerson talks tough and shows why he is not suitable for the job. To block China from those islands will mean war. There is no sense to starting another armed conflict and words are cheap.