Forecasts of international political events
Will China seize Pag-asa Island in 2014?
Speculation about China seizing Pag-asa Island (called Zhongye Island by the Chinese) from the Philippines this year started in January with a post in the English-language China Daily Mail claiming that the Chinese were, in fact, planning to take the island. Pag-asa Island is part of the Spratly Island group, located in an area where the seabed is believed to cover large gas and oil deposits. Control of the Spratlys would give China control of the deposits.
In addition, the Spratlys are part of the “first island chain”, the chain of islands off China’s Pacific coast that China seeks to control. Control of the first island chain would make it much easier for China to defend against the US and make it easier to launch a pre-emptive strike. Control of Pag-asa Island would effectively give China military control over not only the Spratlys but also a large part of the South China Sea.
There doesn’t seem to be any doubt that China could seize Pag-asa Island if it chose to. The title of an article in the New York Times summed up the conflict between China and the Philippines over their competing claims to the Spratlys as “A Game of Shark And Minnow.” Nor is there any doubt about China’s ultimate goal of controlling the Spratlys. But I doubt that it would be worthwhile for China to gain control of Pag-asa Island at this time and in this way.
An article by Carl Thayer in The Diplomat lays out the problems a military seizure of Pag-asa Island would create for China. China is a member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), a number of whom also have claims to parts of the Spratlys. The other members of ASEAN would immediately unite in opposition to China, something China has worked successfully to prevent so far. It would become an issue at the UN, although China would veto discussion by the Security Council. There would be a Spratly Islands arms race as surrounding countries beefed up their military facilities and increased their naval patrols. The level of military armament would increase to possibly include cruise missiles. On the whole, it would make international relations more complicated and increase military risks in the Spratlys.
China might be tempted to use military force in the Spratlys in spite of the problems it would cause if it had no other way of gaining control. China has used its military to gain territory in the recent past. China gained control of all of the Paracel Islands in 1974 after a naval battle with South Vietnam. In 1988, a conflict with Vietnam near the Johnson South Reef in the Spratlys resulted in China occupying six reefs and atolls.
But China is currently using a strategy of squeezing out the competition while staying under the threshold of force that would cause a reaction that harmed its interests. The Philippines has maintained a presence on Ayungin Shoal for the past fifteen years by running a naval vessel aground and stationing marines on the vessel. The Chinese have responded by keeping two Coast Guard cutters on permanent patrol at the shoal, effectively preventing the Philippines from carrying out normal resupply. The Chinese allow fishing boats through, and the Philippines takes advantage of that to sneak in occasional luxuries like donuts, but the marines survive by catching their own fish. The boat is rusting and deteriorating, and eventually will no longer be safe. The Chinese can wait.
According to the New York Times, the Philippines has built crude shelter on stilts over shallow water or sandbars at Rizal Reef, Patag and Panata. The troops stationed there have very little room to move inside their shelters and have nothing to do except fish. When there was bad weather at Riza Reef, the troops used to tie themselves to oil drums at night so they would float if the shelter collapsed. In 1994, a typhoon chased the usual Filipino naval patrols away from Mischief reef and the Chinese took advantage of their absence to build their own stilted shelter. They’ve gradually upgraded it to a more permanent structure. China would almost certainly do something similar if bad weather collapsed the Filipino structures at the reefs and sandbars they control.
China has opened bidding for oil exploration in areas that were already leased by Vietnam for exploration and development. It has chased a Philippine survey ship away from the Reed Bank, well within the Philippine’s Exclusive Economic Zone. It has sent fishing boats to Scarborough Shoal, also inside the Philippines EEZ.
China’s strategy has been referred to as “salami-slicing.” This is defined as “the slow accumulation of small actions, none of which is a casus belli, but which add up over time to a major strategic change.” So far it’s working. China has slowly accumulated more and more control over the islands of the South China Sea, and done so without uniting the other countries with claims in the South China Sea against it, or threatening its other important international interests. There may come a time when China has gotten all it can get by “salami-slicing” and reverts to military force. But not this year.