The game of chicken and Scarborough
The South China Sea (SCS) and the East China Sea (ECS) have become the playgrounds of the game of chicken among the world’s superpowers, a dangerous game that could ignite a nuclear holocaust.
Claiming “freedom of navigation,” the United States (US) regularly dispatches a flotilla of aircraft carriers, warships, submarines, and warplanes to the SCS and ECS. Ignoring China’s self-proclaimed “nine-dash” line, the US conveniently justifies its actions by citing the Arbitral Award we won, though it was neither a party thereto nor a signatory to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.
Likewise sending their naval and air assets to these areas are the US allies: Great Britain (which recently sent the “HMS Queen Elizabeth,” described by British Ambassador Daniel Pruce as “the largest and most powerful surface vessel in the Royal Navy’s history”), Australia, Japan, Germany, and France.
Moreover, the US openly sends its high officials and sells modern armaments to Taiwan in silent disregard of its own “one-China policy.” Why? Because, aside from its strategic location, Taiwan hosts the biggest and most advanced chip maker in the world. Its products are used as components for artificial intelligence, high-value computers, and military software that the US and its allies would not want China to possess.
China responds by sailing its own armada and flying its jets to buzz the allied sorties, sometimes close enough for the pilots to see each other’s digital helmets. It also scrambles warplanes and drones in the narrow part of the SCS, defying Taiwan’s air defense identification zone. In turn, Taiwan’s ultra-modern, US-made jets chase them in their own daring game of chicken.
The US maintains several military bases in Japan. On its own, Japan flies its “self-defense” planes and sails its military hardware to guard the Senkaku Isles (Diaoyu to the Chinese) that are historically claimed by China, which also periodically wings its super jets near or over them.
Though unpopulated, these isles are deemed by the US as integral parts of Japan such that any Chinese attempt to take over them would activate the US-Japan Mutual Defense Treaty. Given the US Seventh Fleet’s presence in Tokyo Bay, such an attempt can trigger a larger war.
In South Korea, the US maintains about 30,000 troops and several military bases, partly to confront North Korea (China’s ally) and partly to contain China’s land expansion.
Yes, the mighty powers have been playing the game of chickenʍprobing one another’s resolve, stepping up air and naval patrols, and engaging in exercises that simulate actual combats.
To us Filipinos, however, the big question is: What should we do if China builds a military base complete with an airstrip and missile silos on Scarborough Shoal, as it had done in several “rocks” in the Spratlys?
Equally important, how will the US respond? Will it help us the way it has been helping Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea? In a past confrontation, the US tried to mediate by asking China and the Philippines to withdraw their warships in the area. Our government agreed and withdrew. But China, despite allegedly agreeing, did not withdraw and instead tightened its grip on the shoal.
The US did nothing. But we did what was best for us. Though internally wracked by factional dissension (narrated by Justice Antonio T. Carpio in his last column), former President Noynoy Aquino finally chose the right path, the rule of law, and won the AA that now even the US uses to support its actions.
The AA ruled that the Scarborough is a “high tide elevation” with a 12-nautical-mile (24 NM in diameter) territorial sea that bores a large hole in our 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone. If China completes its occupation thereof, it could exercise sovereignty over the territorial sea and shoo away everyone from the area.
In the end, perhaps the real question is not whether the US will help us secure our borders and our rights, but whether it is in its national interest to defend the shoal and risk a nuclear war. It has retreated from the game of chicken before. What will it do in this new imagined scenario?
In my humble opinion, regardless of what the US (or China) will do to uphold its national interests, we should pursue our own destiny and continue to lean on the rule of law. In this way, to use another metaphor, we would not be just another expendable pawn in the old power game of chess of the international masters.
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