RELATED to the subject matter of my past two columns (on the PH-China dispute over the West Philippine Sea), this current discussion pursues the topic rather alarmingly. The former Intelligence Service of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (ISAFP) chief, Lt. Gen. Victor Corpus, has a way of calling my attention, through a post on Facebook, to a video richly detailed with US military maneuvers in the South China Sea beginning January this year. It was, of course, a post open for perusal by any visitor to his FB page, but coming as it did on the heels of my two pieces on the the Philippine case at the United Nations Permanent Court of Arbitration, I gave the video presentation more than a cursory glance.
Carrying a YouTube post tag “US Military Turns Up the Heat on China with More US Navy Ships,” the video clip is titled “Current Escalations in the South China Sea,” published by South Front Analysis and Intelligence through the website Tactical Clips.com. The presentation immediately strikes one as anything but about peace, with an aerial shot, for the opening, of a fleet of navy ships cutting trails of white across the blue of ocean waters, a giant carrier at the head of the v-column, with destroyers flanking it on both sides. Cut to a medium-close view of a fighter jet taking off from the runway of the carrier, which in a change-angle surges close toward cam to reveal its awesome, fearsome size, followed by shots of the maneuvers of destroyers. These sea movements are interspersed with anti-Chinese mass protest by Filipinos, a news conference by top US officials, a landing on the aircraft carrier by evidently a high war official, which cuts to a Chinese destroyer surging through the water, the Chinese flag fluttering on its mast.
And then the huge blast in the water.
It is not a naval exercise that’s going on. Those are shots of actual maneuvers in US military operations.
Are we into war already? I asked myself impulsively.
I thought I should get the answer from the accompanying article of the YouTube post.
Aided with computer graphics, the article said for an opener: “The USS John C. Stennis, carrying a strike group, sailed off to the contested region from Washington on January 15th (2016), passing through the Luzon Strait separating Taiwan and the Philippines. The USS Stennis was accompanied by carriers USS Antietam and USS Mobile Bay and guided missile destroyers USS Stockdale and USS Chung-Hoon. The USS Blue Ridge was also in the area.”
As the video narration would put it, these navy ships were sent to the South China Sea for purposes eventually proclaimed in the Trilateral Talks held the following March. In the talks, participated in by the US Navy, the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Forces and the Philippine Navy, it was agreed in no uncertain terms that the US, Japan and the Philippines would bind together in confronting China over the South China Sea. The video narrator elaborated that the specific purposes of the talks were, first, to promote the security of the Philippines and the region and, second, to develop a framework for future multilateral training and exercises.
The trilateral talks were held on the USS Blue Ridge, which is the flagship of the US Seventh Fleet in the Pacific Region.
The article revealed that the US has also increased surveillance flights over the South China Sea area. “China,” it said, “which has had control over the Woody Island and the Paracel Islands after Vietnam lost to them, has shown to have a strong military airbase on Woody Island. China has also deployed jets to the island, and has not ceased to attack Spratly Islands and other surrounding islands.”
According to the article, the Royal Australian Navy and the Philippine Navy have both deployed new ships that have bolstered the current US presence. The Japanese Prime Minister has voiced his willingness to have the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Forces help patrol the South China Sea. It has likewise been reported that the US and Australia have been negotiating to have US tankers and bombers on strategic Australian bases.
As revealed by the video narrator, the likelihood of war over the South China Sea is not farfetched. It will come about either as a product of conscious design or miscalculation. We remember that in May, a US battleship made that so-called sail-by near Chinese-occupied territories in the Spratlys. That was testing the waters, so to speak. In quick reaction, China scrambled to fly its jet fighters from the Fiery Cross Reef and Mischief Reef, to put up with the US move.
If the US maneuver was a feeler, China’s scrambling to send jet fighters to counter the maneuver signaled its readiness to deal with what it perceives as US intrusion into its territory.
Below are photo-grabs from the video presentation:
Top photo shows the US naval attack group as it enters the South China Sea in March via the Luzon Strait after sailing across the Pacific Ocean from Washington last January. The group was composed of the USS Stennis in the lead, together with carriers USS Antietam and USS Mobile Bay and guided missile destroyers USS Stockdale and USS Chung-Hoon.
The USS Blue Ridge, flagship of the US Seventh Fleet in the Pacific Region, joined the group later and became the site for the Trilateral Talks the following March participated in by the US Navy, the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Forces, and the Philippine Navy for coordinated action against China for the security of the Philippines and the Pacific Region.
The USS Curtis Wilbur and USS Lassen were later additions to the US naval contingent ensuring strong US presence in the area.
At the same time, surveillance flights (see photo–grab, below) were conducted by US Air Force Boeing P-8 Poseidon with a crew of nine (two pilots and seven operators), maximum speed of 907 KMpH, and combat radius of 3700 KM; and Boeing B-62 Stratofortress with a crew of five, maximum speed of 957 KMpH, and combat radius of 7210 KM.
Meantime, China has a much-strengthened military airbase on Woody Island (see photo–grabs below) with newly-built hangars, munitions storage buildings, two batteries of HQ-9 surface-to-air missile launchers, engagement radar, Type 3058 AESA Acquisition radar, and J-11 Fighters that were instantly sent in the air to counter, just in case, a truly belligerent move of the US carrier that made a sail-by in May near a Spratly Island Chinese emplacement. The photo–grabs below, meanwhile, show rapidly developing similar airbases on Fiery Cross Reef and Mischief Reef, features of the South China Sea that are part of the complaint lodged by the Philippines before the United Nations Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA). It is in relation to the Philippine-China dispute at the PCA that the video presentation proves to be alarming. In the event of a Philippine win in the case—which is held very likely in the light of UNCLOS rules—China will be constrained to use its veto power as one of five permanent members of the UN Security Council to prevent implementation of a PCA ruling favorable to the Philippines. That will give the US just that needed moral ascendancy to use force against China in the pretext of implementing a legitimate decision by the United Nations.