One of China’s most popular newspapers has warned of a potential “small-scale war” between Beijing and Manila as a result of their standoff at Panatag Shoal, or Scarborough Shoal as the area is known internationally.(Full story here). The same story indicates that China is maintaining several vessels in the area.
The Global Times, in an editorial published in its Chinese and English editions, said over the weekend that “China should be prepared to engage in a small-scale war at sea with the Philippines.”
“Once the war erupts, China must take resolute action to deliver a clear message to the outside world that it does not want a war, but definitely has no fear of it,” the tabloid said.
Malacañang and Philippine military officials were unfazed by the toughly worded editorial.
In Camp Aquino in Tarlac City, the head of the military’s Northern Luzon Command (Nolcom) accused China of lying when it claimed it had withdrawn most of its vessels at Panatag Shoal.Meanwhile, U.S. and Philippine military forces continue their annual "Balikatan" (shoulder-to-shoulder) military exercises.
“We are telling them they’re not telling the truth,” Nolcom commander Lt. Gen. Anthony Alcantara told visiting defense reporters.
In a press briefing, Alcantara said at least seven Chinese vessels remained in the vicinity of Panatag, including two small fishing boats anchored on the lagoon and three other fishing vessels off a sandbar.
Alcantara said two Chinese maritime ships—the gunboat FLEC 310 and the surveillance ship CMS 71—had been sighted in the Panatag waters as of 8 p.m. Monday.
Two more surveillance ships, the CMS 84 and 75, are believed to be replenishing provisions and refueling somewhere in the Chinese mainland, he added.
Nearly 7,000 American and Philippine troops were launched from U.S. and Philippine ships in a simulated amphibious assault to recapture an island supposedly taken by militants.Patrick Cronin argues in this op-ed in the New York Times that China is not looking for a military confrontation, however, but looking to expand its influence in the region. He writes:
Four days ago, commando teams rappelled down from U.S. helicopters and landed from rubber boats in a mock assault to retake an oil rig in northern Palawan, 18 km (11 miles) off the town of El Nido on the South China Sea.
The annual war games come under the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT), one of the web of security alliances the United States built in the Asia and Pacific region during the Cold War.
The drills are a rehearsal of a mutual defence plan by the two allies to repel any aggression in the Philippines.
The latest crisis arose after the pocket-size Philippine Navy, with an old United States Coast Guard cutter as its new flagship, tried to apprehend Chinese fishermen it claimed were operating illegally near the Scarborough Shoal. China then sent two surveillance vessels — part of a recent effort to protect its claims in the East and South China Seas — to block the Philippine ship.Like almost every other country in the world, the politics of China is not monolithic. There are multiple coalitions and forces at work. So, Mr. Cronin's views are a little naive if he intends to portray China as having a unified foreign policy. Hardliners in China may well want to push for a small military action to garner respect in the region, or using this incident to test the United States' resolve with respect to allies in the region.
The message was stark: escalate and risk a violent run-in with the Chinese Navy, or stand down and negotiate with Beijing from a position of weakness.
Manila wisely chose the latter, first substituting a civilian vessel for its combat vessel, and then containing the dispute through diplomatic channels. But China was also sending a flare to Washington, to the effect that American efforts to strengthen the military capacity of its regional allies would be checked.
It’s easy to see the standoff as an act of quasi-aggression, but it’s not. Because China is looking for influence rather than spoiling for a fight, it will seek a minimal show of force, as it did in the Scarborough incident by sending surveillance vessels instead of warships. Drawing attention to its rapid military modernization or its intensifying nationalist sentiment, after all, could undermine China’s core interests.
The key take-away from the recent showdown is that the United States needs to remain coolheaded. Not only are such skirmishes at sea inevitable, but they are also of minor consequence — assuming they are managed shrewdly.
Given our allies’ overlapping interests in the South China Sea, we are bound to feel pressure to act aggressively against what appears to be Chinese expansionism. But as wiser heads in the United States have understood for decades, China is not truly expansionist. Its mercantilist international policies have material rather than imperial ambitions. China is testing the limits, not necessarily trying to pick a fight.