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Thursday, August 25, 2011

What if China attacked the Spratlys?

By Perry Diaz

Disputed Spratly islands

The debate on China’s territorial claim of the entire South China Sea has recently taken center stage in world geopolitics among the other five claimants, particularly the Philippines and the United States. In fact, the United States’ entry into the fray stirred China and caused her to issue warnings to the United States to stay out of the Spratly dispute.

Recently, Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario went to Washington, DC to meet with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to discuss arms procurement as well as the US-Philippine Mutual Defense Treaty.

Although the US reaffirmed its commitment to come to the defense of the Philippines should she be attacked by China or any other foreign country, there are political and geopolitical considerations that the US has to weigh before sending her military forces to the defense of the Philippines or, specifically, the Spratlys.

The question in everybody’s mind is: What if China attacked the Spratlys? And if so, can we survive a Chinese attack?

Here are some military statistics from globalfirepower.com:

Active Military Personnel: China 2,255,000 (2008); Philippines 113,000 (2008)
Total Aircraft: China 1,900 (2004); Philippines 257 (2003)
Helicopters: China 491 (2004); Philippines 126 (2003)
Total Navy Ships: China 760; Philippines 36
Aircraft Carrier: China 1; Philippines 0
Destroyers: China 21 (2004); Philippines 0
Submarines: China 68; Philippines 0
Frigates: China 42 (2004); Philippines 1
Patrol and Coastal Craft: China 368 (2004); Philippines 24 (2008)
Amphibious Craft: China 121 (2004); Philippines, 12 (2008)

Frigate Rajah Humabon

By just looking at the two countries’ military forces, there is no way the Philippines could survive a Chinese attack. The Philippine Navy has one World War II-vintage frigate and an Air Force that consists mainly of helicopters and no jet fighters. In a matter of days the entire Spratly archipelago could be in the possession of China — without firing a single shot!

The only thing that is deterring China – momentarily — from attacking the Spratlys is the US-Philippine Mutual Defense Treaty, on the presumption that the US would come to the aid of the Philippines if the latter invoked the Mutual Defense Treaty. But that is a big “IF” because President Barack Obama would have difficulty in convincing Congress and the American people to go to war in the South China Sea while the US is still embroiled in wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya… unless her national interests and security are threatened.

And considering the weak economy of the US today, it’s doubtful if she could even come up with the money to open another war front halfway around the world. And to make it more challenging, the US doesn’t have any strong foothold in a country in the region that she could use for her base of operations. Although the US has military bases in Japan and South Korea, it’s doubtful if they would allow her to stage military operations against China from their soil.

And the biggest problem that the US has to deal with is her trade relationship with China, not to mention that she owes China approximately $850 billion… and is still growing. A lot of American corporations are doing business in China, which includes manufacturing plants that cost humongous amounts of capital. China is one of the biggest – if not the biggest – trade partners of the US. Needless to say, all that will be in harm’s way should the US get involved in a war in the Spratlys.

US military presence

In September 1991, the Philippine Senate rejected a proposal to extend the bases treaty for another 10 years; thus, ending the United States’ military presence of almost a century. The US then moved its military forces to Guam, almost 2,000 miles away from the South China Sea. In the event of hostilities in the South China Sea, the distance to Guam would create logistical nightmares.

The US’s only presence in the Philippines – if you’d even consider it that – is the deployment of a small unit of special forces in Mindanao solely for the purpose of training Filipino soldiers in fighting Islamic terrorists.

But what really deterred China in the past from stepping on our territory including the Spratlys was the presence of American ground, air, and naval forces on Philippines soil. Clark Air Force Base and Subic Naval Base were the biggest American bases outside the US capable of sustaining a strategic defense line from the Sea of Japan through the South China Sea; thus, preventing China from venturing out from its shores.

The US still maintains its Seventh Fleet in the Pacific and Indian Oceans; however, it’s based in Guam with deployments in four of the five countries in which the US has mutual defense treaties in the area – Australia, New Zealand, South Korea, and Thailand. The fifth country, the Philippines, does not allow deployment of permanent US forces.

In March 2010, China – in a bold action — unilaterally declared the entire South China Sea a “core national interest” just like her claims of Tibet and Taiwan and told the Philippines to stay out! In Chinese parlance, “core national interest” means that it is non-negotiable.

Oil exploration

What China is planning to do next is to set up oil rigs in the Spratlys within the Philippines’ 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). Last May 24, 2011, Xinhua News reported that the China National Offshore Oil Corp (CNOOC) is going to deploy in Philippine waters its 31,000-ton Marine Oil 981, a giant deepwater oil drilling platform that carries out oil explorations up to a depth of 3,000 meters and is equipped with a drill that can go as deep as 12,000 meters. As reported, Marine Oil 981 costs $923 million and took three years to build. It’s supposed to be installed in July 2011, which is this month.

Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi, right, meets with Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario in Beijing on Friday. AP/Xinhua

Last week, in an attempt to diffuse the prickly dispute over the Spratlys, Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario went to Beijing to meet with Vice President Xi Jinping and Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi. When interviewed by foreign journalists near the Philippine Embassy in Beijing, Del Rosario claimed his trip was successful, saying: “Both Ministers exchanged views on the maritime disputes and agreed not to let the maritime disputes affect the broader picture of friendship and cooperation between the two countries.” However, upon his return to Manila, he said that China did not make any assurance that she would stop the intrusions into the disputed Spratlys.

Recently, during a two-day conference on the South China Sea, an expert on China said that hardliners in the Chinese Military Academy are “raring to teach China’s neighbors ‘a lesson’ for intruding into the South China Sea,” adding that they think that launching war against the “invaders” is justifiable. It’s amazing how China is now calling the Philippines, “invaders.”

The question is: How can the Philippines defend its Spratly territory from Chinese attack? Perhaps its time to welcome the Americans back, otherwise we might wake up one day to see Chinese soldiers on our shores.

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