The Iron Fist
There is now a dire need for the Philippines to take the lead in building a military alliance with Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam.
Extremely alarming events triggered by China in the past two months are serving to convince our four allies that they, too, are actual and not potential victims of its relentless diplomatic aggressiveness in the West Philippine Sea.
The governments of our allies should realize that an alliance remains the only viable option for deterring China from pursuing its “new imperialism” that will reduce them to the status of witless vassals if left unchecked. The humiliating example of servile Cambodia, ever the subservient Igor to China’s Dr. Frankenstein, should be fresh in their minds.
There is sound logic for using the powerful diplomatic tool of alliance building. Alone, none of the five allied nations has the power to bend China to its will. But collectively, the power of the five will be enough to deter further Chinese expansionism in the West Philippine Sea.
One can compare the five to the fingers in a hand. Singly, each finger is vulnerable to pressure, however slight. But acting together when clenched, the five fingers become an Iron Fist with the power to inflict pain on any foe. And the Iron Fist can now turn to Japan and India for support because of China’s aptitude for making enemies right and left. This support is tantamount to arming the Iron Fist with a massive battle axe.
The naval balance
The power of the Iron Fist lies in the combined naval power it can bring to bear against the Chinese. In numbers, both sides are almost evenly matched.
Together, the allies can currently muster some 50 surface combatants (destroyers, frigates and corvettes) and eight submarines. It will be far stronger by 2020.
Their antagonist in any sea conflict will be the South Sea Fleet of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN). This fleet of some 30 destroyers and frigates and eight diesel-electric submarines is based in the city of Zhanjiang in Guangdong province. It will be reinforced by the more powerful East Sea Fleet (whose mission is to invade Taiwan) should fighting erupt. But the presence of the ROC Navy should serve to deter any massive redeployment of its ships to assist the South Sea Fleet.
The PLAN has an edge in fighting power and a homogeneous command structure. Together, what the allies have is a credible naval deterrent that can inflict far more damage on the PLAN than any single allied nation can.
A bully won’t be as warlike if he knows the nerds facing him can also beat him up. It is this fear that will restrain the bully from further provocation. And any hesitation by China to further its aim of transforming the West Philippine Sea into a Chinese Lake will be a victory for the allies.
But this will only be brought about by the existence of the Iron Fist.
Allied naval power
In 2011, the Socialist Republic of Vietnam took delivery of its second “Gepard 3.9 Class” frigate. Vietnam’s two operational Gepard (Russian for “cheetah”) frigates are now among the most advanced surface combatants among the allies apart from Taiwan’s US-made destroyers and “La Fayette” stealth frigates. Vietnam has two more Gepards on order.
The Gepard’s firepower is massive: eight sea-skimming “Switchblade” antiship missiles, each with a range of 130 kilometers; a surface-to-air missile system; two 6-barreled 30 mm autocannon; torpedoes; an antisubmarine rocket launcher; and a 76.2 mm dual purpose main gun.
Vietnam is awaiting delivery of six improved “Kilo Class” submarines (six torpedo tubes, 6,000 mile range). It currently operates 23 Sukhoi “Su-30MK2” Flanker-C naval fighter-bombers (antiship missiles, 5,000 mile range) and is buying more of these antiship attack aircraft.
These weapons systems, all made in Russia, bring Vietnam closer to the point where it can successfully challenge China—its primary strategic foe—if push comes to shove in the West Philippine Sea. And Vietnam has a score to settle with China. It suffered a naval defeat off our Kalayaan archipelago during the “Spratly Islands Naval Battle of 1988.” In that battle, three missile-armed Chinese frigates attacked three almost defenseless Vietnamese troop transport ships defended by three lightly armed patrol boats, sinking all the transports and killing 60 Vietnamese. The Chinese lost six men but no ships.
Malaysia and Taiwan also realize the immense value of submarines and modern warships in defending their national interests in the West Philippine Sea.
Three years ago Malaysia took delivery of two Scorpène submarines built by France. These advanced subs are armed with “Blackshark” wire-guided torpedoes and “Exocet SM-39” sub-launched antiship missiles.
Taiwan operates four submarines, 22 modern frigates and four destroyers. In addition, the ROC Navy is building 30 “Kuang Hua VI Class” missile boats capable of patrolling the West Philippine Sea. Brunei’s navy consists of missile armed corvettes and fast patrol boats.
Stronger PH Navy
And what of the Philippines and its Navy?
The Philippine Navy is becoming stronger because of a stronger focus on national defense by President Aquino. A second Hamilton-class frigate will join its sister ship, the BRP Gregorio del Pilar, next year, as will another frigate. The new Hamilton is expected to be armed with missiles and a close-in weapons system for use against aircraft.
But the most heartening news is that the Philippines will acquire two Italian frigates armed with ship-to-ship missiles and surface-to-air missiles. These will be the first modern fighting warships in the Navy.
Despite its paucity in naval fighting power, the Philippines has an ace in the hole: the mighty US Navy. The coming redeployment of 60 percent of the US Navy’s fighting power to the Pacific will also give China pause.
China, however, has shown a stubborn streak in its push for hegemony in the West Philippine Sea. And there is abundant reason to doubt its sincerity when it states that diplomacy is its preferred tool in solving the impasse over the Spratlys. China’s recent and relentless aggressive actions belie this claim again and again.
Only the Iron Fist will suffice to keep China in check. And the allies can learn from recent history the folly of appeasing aggressive states such as China.
The Philippines and its allies cannot cede a single centimeter of territory in the West Philippine Sea to China. To do so will ignite a chain of disastrous events leading to a war.
In the infamous Munich Agreement of 1938, the Western Allies surrendered Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia to Nazi Germany in the hope of preventing Adolf Hitler from plunging Europe into war. This act of appeasement failed, and World War II was not averted.
History must not repeat itself at our expense.
Art Villasanta is the Philippines’ historian of the Korean War and is a keen student of military history. His military websites are at www.peftok.blogspot.com and www.futurewardefeat. blogspot.com.
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