Five Scenarios for Renewed China-Philippines Conflict
TAIPEI — The standoff between China and the Philippines over Chinese fishing boats poaching in the Scarborough Shoal that began April 8 appears to be easing. But defense analysts point to Beijing’s continued failure to ignore regional exclusive economic zones (EEZs) and rein in competitive maritime enforcement agencies.
A new report, issued April 23 by the International Crisis Group (ICG), blames China’s disjointed and competitive maritime patrol agencies fighting over budgets and turf.
The ICG report — titled “Stirring Up The South China Sea” — identifies four “dragons” as the main culprits: Maritime Safety Administration, China Marine Surveillance (CMS), Fisheries Law Enforcement Command (FLEC) and provincial government maritime enforcement units operating from Guangdong and Hainan.
Part of the problem is transparency about how the overlapping agencies function, said Ian Storey, a specialist at Singapore’s Institute of Southeast Asian Studies. “It is also unclear what the lines of communication are between these various agencies and the PLA [People’s Liberation Army] and central government.”
Each of the agencies sets its own agenda, said Carlyle Thayer, a professor at University of New South Wales at the Australian Defence Force Academy, “especially FLEC and CMS, both have been responsible for nearly all the major incidents in recent years.”
Thayer identified five potential scenarios that could play out in a future dispute between China and the Philippines.
Scenario 1: Chinese fishing boats continue to fish in the Philippines’ EEZ. In this scenario, the Philippine Coast Guard attempts to arrest fishermen at Scarborough Shoal. The fishermen display automatic weapons and call for assistance. Chinese surveillance ships intervene and move aggressively to force the Coast Guard vessel away. One Chinese fisherman fires at the Coast Guard vessel with an assault rifle; the Coast Guard vessel fires warning shots. This is misinterpreted by one of the Chinese surveillance ships, which rams the Coast Guard vessel. The crews on both vessels engage in a brief firefight leading to fatalities before calm is restored.
This scenario is both the “most likely and the most troubling,” said retired U.S. Navy Adm. Walter Doran, former commander of U.S. Pacific Fleet. “I am sure the Chinese have little respect for the Philippine capability to defend their claims and assets, and therefore they are least likely to put up with any push back from the Philippines.”
However, a firefight between Chinese fishermen and Philippine Coast Guard vessels appears unlikely, said Gary Li, an analyst at U.K.-based Exclusive Analysis. “Not very likely, as Chinese fishing vessels and fishermen are not armed with anything other than maybe a hook,” Li said. Chinese surveillance vessels would also not engage in a firefight in such an open way, he said. “Chinese paramilitaries have to clear everything with headquarters, and this kind of escalation would be very damaging so not likely to be allowed.”
Scenario 2: Chinese officials in the FLEC grow tired of foreign affairs “dilly-dallying and the standoff at Scarborough Shoal,” Thayer said. At night, an armed FLEC party boards and takes over the Philippine Coast Guard cutter on the pretext of detaining a vessel operating illegally in Chinese waters. “If you accept that China has sovereignty over the rocks at Scarborough Shoal and these are entitled to a 12-nautical-mile territorial sea, China could argue a stationary Coast Guard cutter is not engaged in innocent passage,” he said.
“Direct boarding of anything other than a fishing vessel is not likely to be attempted by any Chinese marine paramilitaries,” Li said. “They are far too cowardly and cautious, unless they’ve been given a direct order, in which case they might attempt ramming action.” Storey also felt this scenario was unlikely and “too Tom Clancy.”
Scenario 3: While the Philippines is engaged in the standoff at Scarborough Shoal, China dispatches a FLEC ship into the Spratly waters claimed by the Philippines to assist Chinese fishermen claiming harassment by Filipino fishermen.
The Philippines does not have any Coast Guard ships available, so it dispatches the Navy frigate Gregorio del Pilar. Both sides refuse to stand down, and when the FLEC ship maneuvers dangerously, the frigate fires warning shots. The Chinese return fire, hitting the frigate and killing several crew members.
The problem with this scenario is the Chinese have already withdrawn their largest fisheries vessel, the Yuzheng 310, in a gesture of goodwill and an attempt at de-escalating the issue, Li said. This points to the Chinese not having the confidence or political will to take this further. “The Chinese paramilitary vessels wouldn’t dare fire upon a foreign military vessel, as this would be an open declaration of war,” he said, and “their 12.7mm machine guns won’t do much damage and the small Filipino frigates can still blast them full of holes in return.”
Storey believes this scenario is still plausible. “Frankly speaking, I think it’s just a question of time before we see a firefight in the [South China Sea and] it would likely be sparked by a dispute over fisheries or oil and gas exploration. It could easily get out of hand.”
Scenario 4: During the standoff at Scarborough Shoal, both sides plant flags on the rocks signifying sovereignty. One day, two landing parties confront each other and shooting breaks out when one side attempts to stop the other from removing its flag. An armed Chinese vessel appears and provides covering fire. Several Filipino troops are killed. The Philippines requests consultations with the U.S. under the Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT).
The overhanging question of the MDT with the Philippines will have to be dealt with, Doran said. This will become more of an issue as the U.S. pivots forces to the Pacific and considers a closer relationship with the Philippines. “We have once again learned to live with a lot of ambiguity in the relationship, but an aggressive China demands that we clearly re-think the commitments on both sides of the treaty,” Doran said.
“My primary concern is China building structures similar to what they did on Mischief Reef in 1995,” said Renato Cruz De Castro of De La Salle University in Manila. “They will take control of Scarborough Shoal, build a structure for fishermen to shelter, and improve it with radar and communications facilities.”
Building structures on the shoal will prevent the Philippines from exercising its territorial rights to the shoal on the basis of the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, and also allow the Chinese to monitor U.S. Navy communications once Subic Bay becomes available for its use in the light of current negotiation between Manila and Washington for a greater U.S. strategic footprint in the Philippines, he said.
The problem is that the Philippines did not formally claim sovereignty of the Spratly Islands until 1978, “so the U.S. position is that the 1951 MDT does not cover them,” Storey said, though consultations would be required.
Scenario 5: The standoff at Scarborough Shoal ends when the Philippines withdraws its Coast Guard cutter. China sends in personnel to occupy the rocks and erect structures. A Chinese Navy warship is posted nearby to deter a Filipino response. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) falls into complete disarray over how to respond, so it does nothing. The Philippines calls for consultations with the U.S. under the MDT, arguing that it has lost territory due to external armed intervention.
U.S. credibility is put on the line. China begins to renew its harassment of U.S. Navy surveillance ships and aircraft operating in its EEZ as a signal to the U.S. to back off. The U.S. provides armed escorts for its ships and aircraft. Tensions increase dramatically.
“As for ASEAN — it would either close ranks behind the Philippines (as ASEAN did over Vietnamese incursions into Thai territory in 1980) or split and be rendered impotent,” Storey said. “My money would be on the latter.”
“I think the increase in U.S. involvement will definitely happen, but I don’t think the Chinese will try and erect structures so close to the Philippine coast,” Li said. “It would be almost impossible for them to defend effectively and they don’t have assets that can be rotated out in an effective manner.”
The five scenarios roughly coincide with Doran’s greatest concerns over the South China Sea situation. “I worry that eventually one side or the other will make a miscalculation or some minor player will overreact to events and an uncontrollable series of events will unfold.”
Doran’s main worry is about the Philippines due to the emotions that are in play, and Filipino forces’ lack of training and real capability. “Whereas Vietnam and Indonesia,
among others, are also subject to potential events, the Philippines, in my estimation are most likely to handle the whole thing badly and get in over their heads.”