Game-changer: China’s naval bases in the Spratlys | Inquirer Opinion

Game-changer: China’s naval bases in the Spratlys

Right now, there seems to be no solution in sight.

First, China will never submit to a court where it may lose, and the Philippines’ efforts in The Hague may lead nowhere. Second, China is in despair for energy, without which it may have an economic meltdown never before seen in human history. Third, China fears US “encirclement” due to US President Barack Obama’s “pivot to Asia,” which will bring 70 percent of America’s naval forces into the Asia-Pacific. China fears that confrontation is inevitable, and is preparing feverishly for it. China will resort to brinkmanship in facing the US Navy in the Spratlys. It is militarizing the Spratlys on a massive scale, to the tune of billions of dollars.


These imply: 1) rapid military escalation on both sides in the next 10 years, not to mention Japan’s participation; 2) the inevitability of a US-China naval showdown; and 3) the Philippines becoming major collateral damage. Filipinos will be a pawn in a battle of giants and may die for the US pivot to Asia, which is not to their interest.

China’s perceived goal involves the construction of three large naval bases with long runways at Fiery Cross (Kagitingan) Reef and Second Thomas (Ayungin) Shoal in the Spratlys and Woody (Yongxing) Island in the Paracels. It is working 24/7 before it is preempted by a US initiative. This is the geopolitical game-changer that may craft the destiny of the Asia-Pacific.


China is building structures in six other reefs—Mischief (Panganiban), Johnson South (Mabini or Chigua), Kennan, Gaven (Burgos), Cuarteron (Calderon), and Subi (Zamora). This is tantamount to a full-scale invasion of Vietnam, Taiwan, Japan and the Philippines.

Once completed, China’s perceived naval-air force bases on Kagitingan and Ayungin can easily dwarf the old US bases at Subic and Clark combined. China will have a military edge over the entire South China Sea on a 2,000-kilometer radius, with satellite-driven radars, mobile twin-hulled mini-carriers with deadly drones, and stealth warplanes that can reach Subic or Clark within minutes.

A possible US counter-game-changer is a preemptive naval blockade of Kagitingan, similar to that during the Cuban missile crisis, to stop construction. The blockade can preempt a future bigger war, but it can also trigger an all-out war.

The presence of Chinese troops at Kagitingan and the eight other reefs and shoals can be a critical factor because the United States cannot just send troops, as evident in Syria in the war against the Isis. Rapid mobilization of troops in strategic reefs is essential in a major confrontation.

Filipinos can easily be a David in between two Goliaths, with no slingshot in hand. The United States may pressure President Aquino to field Philippine troops in the absence of American troops. But we are talking here not of bravery but lives in a one-sided battle.

The best that Filipinos can do at this time is continue to expand ground surveillance and intelligence teams to report real-time developments. At Ayungin Shoal, Filipino soldiers occupying the rusting BRP Sierra Madre have been reporting Chinese naval encroachments as these happened.

As of this writing, the Philippines occupies 10 reefs and shoals, all with troops—Flat Island (Patag), Lankiam Cay (Panatag), Loaita Island (Kota), Nanshan Island (Lawak), Northeast Cay (Parola), Thitu Island (Pag-asa), West York Island (Likas), Commodore Reef (Rizal), Irving Reef (Balagtas), and Second Thomas.


The scant, scattered presence of Philippine troops in 10 reefs and shoals can easily be overrun by large Chinese forces or naval fire in a heightened conflict. The troops may be safe for now, until there is a confrontation.

China has reportedly mounted a powerful lobby against a new bill defining Philippine territory. Chinese companies are supposedly secretly fielding Chinese labor in Philippine contracts. Some have been interviewed by the media.

In a heightened conflict, there are two possible scenarios: First, Chinese locals may participate in favor of China, as in Japanese prewar farmers in Mindanao giving intelligence data to the Japanese invading forces. Second, Chinese locals may become a target, like the Japanese-Americans in California and Hawaii during World War II.

Protest actions against local Chinese can easily happen in the Philippines. Another factor to consider is that local Chinese control about 40 percent of the economy.

A Chinese oil rig stationed 260 kilometers from Vietnam’s shore east of the Paracels was harassed by Vietnamese ships employing water cannons, resulting in a “bumping war” with Chinese ships. This triggered violent protests against Chinese locals in Saigon, forcing China to evacuate them. The oil rig was eventually abandoned.

Clearly, China is not invincible. It can succumb to people-power pressure, but it can also retaliate by boycotting Philippine exports, like what it did to Philippine bananas years ago. Can Filipinos match the Vietnamese bravado and brinkmanship in defying the giant?

To China, a US naval blockade is a ridiculous prospect and is not going to happen. Will America produce an Admiral Patton in response? The results of a US-China war is unpredictable, as both sides have secret weapons. China’s arsenal has secretly grown tenfold in the last two decades.


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

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