The Chinese incursion into Philippine territory in the Spratly islands, at the edge of the South China Sea is a clear and present danger. The government has already signaled that it intends to take the diplomatic route. This is well and good, mostly because we will be negotiating in a position of weakness. Let’s face it, the men and women of the Armed Forces of the Philippines have big hearts but a squadron of People’s Liberation Army Navy forces is all it would take to get what little claim we have. So the government would have to take steps beyond diplomacy.
Not even a squadron really, just Chinese people setting up shop, and claiming territory because, well, they can.
Journalists have a word for a nation that losses control of its territory. They call it, “a failed state”. It is in so many words the erosion of legitimate authority to make collective decisions. It is the inability to provide public services. It is an inability to interact with the International community.
The Spratly Island is over 425,000 square kilometer of sea, and only about 4 square kilometer of land. It consists of over 30,000 islands and reefs. The Philippines says it holds seven islands and three reefs: Flat Island, Lankiam Cay, Loaita Island, Nanshan Island, Northeast Cay, Thitu Island, West York Island, Commodore Reef, Irving Reef, and Second Thomas Reef. The Philippines maintains its call that Reed Bank belongs to it. The People’s Republic of China says it holds Cuarteron Reef, Fiery Cross Reef/Northwest Investigator Reef, Gaven Refs, Hughes Reef, Johnson South Reef, Mischief Reef, Subi Reef, First Thomas Reef, Whitson Reef.
A nation said to own territory is said to occupy it. The Philippines has had years to occupy territory, and to keep patrolling territory. The obvious case is that we haven’t. Whether this national security lapse was simply because the previous governments exercised a lapse in judgement, or whether or not it sought shelter in pieces of paper like the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea is beside the point. Pieces of paper don’t hold land, and they certainly don’t hold territory.
No one is going to war with China over these islands. The Chinese of course will do a lot of saber-rattling. The Chinese on the one hand will weasel their way in as much as possible getting territory as much as it can. The proof that they exercise control will be because they occupy it. The Philippines has a mutual defense treaty with the United States, but surely Washington and the other claimants will prefer a diplomatic solution.
The solution is obvious. The Philippines would need to step up setting up structures, putting ships and patrolling the area. It needs to have fishing boats, and send expeditions. It needs to show that we are holding these territories. In short, the nation will need to show that it has an active presence at the Spratly Islands, and that we are also willing to hold territory as we talk diplomacy.
The Chinese are known for not backing down against anything. This is the People’s Republic of China flexing its muscles, because it can, and because in the grand scheme of things, just maybe it can take a little something from little kid next door. There is no saving face.
The argument against it of course is: why spend on guns and troops when we can’t even feed and send our kids to school. And the short answer is: we can not be a nation state if we can not hold on to the territory we say we control. The alternative is to be a step closer to a failed state. We might as well negotiate membership into the People’s Republic of China or some other government.
What would it take to defend, occupy and use the Spratly Islands? Real ships, real planes, real scientists and fishermen and simply, a nation active on those islands. Is this going to be an arms race?
Either that or the Philippines simply withdraws all claims in the region. That doesn’t make us a Nation State.
Map credit: Central Intelligence Agency (2008), public domain.