Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Background Briefing: South China Sea: China’s Plans for Scarborough Shoal

Background Briefing:
South China Sea: China’s Plans
for Scarborough Shoal
Carlyle A. Thayer
April 13, 2016
[client name deleted]
Q1. Do you expect China to carry out land reclamation at Scarborough Shoal as it has
in the Spratlys, and if so to serve what purpose (another airstrip or just a radar
station and a lighthouse)?
ANSWER: There are strong indications that China is going to act pre-emptively at
Scarborough Shoal prior to the decision of the Arbitral Tribunal expected in early
June. China is likely to build quickly a small permanent structure or structures and
station military personnel on them. By shoring up its position on Scarborough Shoal
China would present a fait accompli to the international community. The Philippines
and the United States would be put in the position of having to accept China’s
actions or take the risk of initiating some kind of robust physical response. China’s
wants to derail international pressure on it to adhere to international law in light of
the Arbitral Tribunal’s findings.
China will not carry out land reclamation on Scarborough Shoal because it is not an
island that has lost soil through erosion by sea and wind. China is likely to convert
the shoal into an artificial island and construct structures and small-scale facilities
under the guise of providing public goods, such as safety of navigation. At a
minimum China would put in communications equipment and possibly radar.
The Australian media has reported concerns by U.S. and Australian intelligence and
analytical agencies, presumably Australia’s Defence Intelligence Organisation and the
Office of National Assessments, that China is poised to take “decisive and
provocative action.” These sources report that China is likely to dynamite
Scarborough Shoal to build an artificial island to house military facilities or declare an
Air Defence Identification Zone. The latter possibility is unlikely at this stage because
it would be purely symbolic. China has no means to enforce it.
The Philippines had a lighthouse on Scarborough Shoal in the 1960s that
disintegrated over time. Scarborough Shoal is not generally considered a part of the
Spratlys islands proper.
2. To what extent do you think that would cross a red line for U.S. military
commanders and why? How does its proximity to Subic Bay fit into that?
Thayer Consultancy
ABN # 65 648 097 123
ANSWER: Militarization should be viewed as a spectrum of activities ranging from
"giving a military character to a place" to "making preparations for war." There is a
grey area along this spectrum where certain facilities have a dual civil and military
use. China initially would stress that the facilities on Scarborough Shoal are civilian
facilities use its Coast Guard to enforce sovereignty in order to make a U.S. response
A red line would tend to be towards the end of the spectrum (making preparations
for war). One red line would be China’s intimidation and coercion of the Philippines
by its civilian maritime forces backed up by the People’s Liberation Army Navy.
If China militarized Scarborough Shoal it would be in a much better position to
monitor the movements of the U.S. 7th Fleet using Subic Bay. China would also be
able to monitor U.S. submarines through the deployment of aerial reconnaissance
aircraft and anti-submarine warfare helicopters.
It is strongly rumoured that Kurt Campbell and Ambassador Fu Ying reached an
understanding for the mutual withdrawal of Chinese and Filipino vessels from
Scarborough Shoal in 2012. Both sides reportedly withdrew from Scarborough Shoal
but the Chinese returned after authorities in Beijing learned of the deal and rejected
it. The US has been equivocal about whether the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty covers
islands and features claimed or acquired by the Philippines after that date.
China will brazen it out in the expectation that the U.S. will not be the first to use
3. Why does it make a difference that China only took control of Scarborough in
2012, whereas it’s artificial islands are all on features it already occupied?
ANSWER: Scarborough Shoal was invested - in the military sense of being besieged
or surrounded - by China as a result of an unplanned encounter initially involving
Chinese fishermen and a Filipino warship (a former US Coast Guard Hamilton-class
cutter). Chinese maritime law enforcement ships intervened to prevent the arrest of
the fishermen. Chinese propaganda went into over drive about the Philippines’ use
of the “biggest warship in their navy.” What began as an interdiction action by the
Chinese Coast Guard became a stand-off and then a permanent presence.
Given the timeline to construct seven artificial islands, it is unlikely Scarborough
Shoal was included in China’s master plan.
4. How advantageous for China would it be to have a triangle of military outposts in
the Spratlys, the Paracels and Scarborough Shoal?
ANSWER: If China constructed an airstrip on Scarborough Shoal, after converting it
into an artificial island, China would have the basic infrastructure to prevent the
Philippines from operating in the waters of the Spratly islands. China already is
challenging Filipino military ships and aircraft.
If China placed long-range radar, fire control radar, surface-to-air missiles and antiship
cruise missiles on its artificial islands it would place the U.S. Navy and other
regional navies at risk in a crisis situation. China would have excellent maritime
domain awareness and be able to respond to the intrusion of foreign military ships
and aircraft. J-11 multirole air superiority fighters could take off from Woody Island,

No comments: