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Playing footsy: the Eagle and the Bear

THE WAY China has invested billions of dollars in reclamation work and military structures on three reefs in the contested Spratlys in just two years implies that it is there to stay. Lately, it issued a warning to the United States that if the latter tried to stop the construction, “there will be war.” China needs oil badly; without it, a slowdown of its economic growth may trigger a mammoth recession. It knows there is oil in the Spratlys; otherwise it would not risk billions of dollars and war for the island chain. To extract oil, China needs military security. Without militarization in a volatile place claimed by other nations, extraction can be disrupted.

A US Poseidon P8 surveillance plane (called a “submarine hunter”) recently reported, in spite of eight warnings from China, continuous dredging that has reclaimed 2,000 acres from the sea at the Fiery Cross Reef, as well as military barracks and piers at a staggering depth of 300 meters, and search radars. A commercial plane was similarly warned by Chinese authorities to move away. It is not known if the P8 came from the former US air base at Clark in the Philippines.

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The United States may hesitate to confront China for its militarization of the reefs in the Spratlys, but if China closes the Taiwan Strait, that will disrupt passage on vital shipping lanes and it will be America’s turn to say “there will be war.” Japan may also go to war because most of its precious imported oil passes through the Taiwan Strait. Remember that when Egypt tried to close the Suez Canal, a vital shipping lane, the United States and Britain were quick to move in.

What would make China close the Taiwan Strait? For one, regaining Taiwan is a continuing obsession. For another, even if that is too risky to go to war over, if there is a military confrontation within a 1,000-kilometer radius, which includes the Spratlys, closing the Taiwan Strait chokepoint would secure attacks against the Chinese mainland. It will take 24 hours for China to close the Taiwan Strait.

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It will simply scatter thousands of bombs across the strait.

Right now, the United States and Japan are working feverishly to install a defense system over the Luzon Strait, just in case the Taiwan Strait is closed. But the proximity of this defense system, centered mainly on Batanes, to the Chinese mainland is dangerous in a confrontation. It can easily be a target of preemptive strikes from China.

The potential for a confrontation in the Spratlys is there. US spy planes have defied China’s warnings to stay away. Chinese warplanes have threatened even commercial flights against making overflights. The Eagle and the Bear have been playing footsy for the last decade, daring and defying each other, testing the waters, employing brinkmanship. One false move, one trigger-happy pilot can, in theory, trigger World War III in the blink of an eye, before it hits the papers. China knows its navy is vastly inferior to that of America, but its weapons program has come up with key “asymmetric weapons,” meaning a cheap but high-tech, easy-to-build arsenal such as missiles that can take out carrier fleets—a slingshot against the Goliath, a critical equalizer against a superior foe.

The looming US-China confrontation in the Asia-Pacific is an energy war for China. For America, it is an economic war, a struggle to maintain its trading partners, such as South Korea, Japan, Vietnam, the Philippines, etc. America wants a piece of the Asian-economy pie, which currently has the fastest growth rate as Europe is on a decline. Thus, the US grand plan, using its “pivot (now rebalance) to Asia,” which will shift 70 percent of its naval forces to the Asia-Pacific, is to “encircle” and isolate its economic rival, China.

The answer to when a war will break out lies in these considerations. It can happen tomorrow or in a decade; no one really knows. The protagonists are not willing to rock the boat for now. The stakes are too high. It is the level of despair that will trigger war, such as an energy crisis in China, or an American economic meltdown.

The way President Aquino has been rattling his saber, knowing the Americans are behind him, may be a good or bad geopolitical move. We may be putting ourselves in the middle of a deadly confrontation of giants, the outcome of which is unpredictable. Will the United States step in if China massacres Filipinos in the Spratlys? Not necessarily. It depends on American interests, which is the basis of America’s decisions. If China destroys the Seventh Fleet somehow, will Subic and Clark bear the brunt of a retaliation? (The United States has reportedly been using Clark Field lately in its surveillance of the Spratlys.)

We are in the middle of it all. But how does that line in those cloak-and-dagger movies go? If you are caught, I will disavow any relationship with you.

Bernie V. Lopez ([email protected]) has been writing political commentary in the last 20 years. He is also a radio-TV broadcaster, a documentary producer-director, and a former Ateneo professor.

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