China’s potential ‘missile triangle’ | Inquirer Opinion

China’s potential ‘missile triangle’

01:39 AM February 29, 2016

WITH THE report from the United States and Taiwan of Chinese missiles installed on Woody Island in the Paracels, China has upped the ante in the seemingly inevitable naval confrontation with the United States in the South China Sea. This signals “Defcon 1,” (or maximum force readiness), the beginning of imminent danger and heightened threats.

Woody Island is strategic to China, commanding a missile range at the heart of the Paracels in the northern portion of the South China Sea. There is oil in this area, and China wants it by hook or by crook. A few years ago, China built an oil rig a mere 260 kilometers from Vietnam’s shores, and Vietnam, in a “bumping war,” sent boats with water cannons to harass Chinese naval vessels guarding the oil rig. Vietnam also launched a nationwide boycott of Chinese goods, ultimately forcing China to abandon the oil rig. With the threat of missiles on Woody Island,


China may revive the oil rig and other explorations near Vietnam’s shore.

Fiery Cross Reef (known as Kagitingan in the Philippines) and Second Thomas Shoal (Ayungin in the Philippines) in the south and Woody Island in the north form a potential “missile triangle” across the vast South China Sea. All three have long airstrips capable of servicing heavy-load planes, which are the infrastructure for rapid buildup of submarine missile silos and for quick troop mobilization in case of a confrontation. Missiles from Woody can reach Vietnam in the east and Taiwan in the south, and missiles from Fiery Cross and Second Thomas, if they are the next in missile buildup, can reach the Philippines in the west, specially the perceived future US defense revival of former bases in Subic and Clark.


The Philippine Supreme Court recently upheld the Edca, or the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement between the United States and the Philippines, which identifies eight strategic defense locations nationwide, including Subic and Clark.

The way of Vietnam—which historically has fought and won wars with China, France, and the United States—is defiance. The way of the Philippines is the opposite, seeking alliance with America, another giant that can face the giant; it is a way and a sign of weakness. Only time will tell which is a wiser geopolitical strategy in the long term. Either way, there will be huge collateral damage. Defiance rattles China, inducing caution. Alliance with the enemy giant does not.

So far, US psywar tactics, like sending warships near China’s military installations in the disputed Spratlys, have failed to stop the frenzy of Chinese rapid military buildup in the entire South China Sea. There are two possible reasons. First, China has perhaps a pretty good idea of the latest US missile weapons after hacking into Pentagon websites. It believes that it is ahead in the missile technology game, and has come up with a Mach-10 missile ahead of the United States. Second, China has perhaps new secret weapons that have made it resort to brinkmanship. But there also may be US secret weapons that China knows nothing about. So there is caution on both sides. China believes that the United States will be limited to psywar and diplomatic threats for now, and will not go into a major confrontation.

However, the more the Chinese military buildup continues, the more nothing is done, and the more dangerous the situation because this will lead to a bigger future war. China must be preempted now, but the United States is not in a position to do this.

Modern missiles are a game-changer in naval warfare. They can easily take out an entire carrier armada in the blink of an eye. Retired Pentagon generals and admirals have admitted that large carrier fleets are becoming obsolete and are vulnerable to new smart missiles that can reach targets within minutes. Gone are the days of the massive carrier

battles of World War II. The possible naval

battle in the Paracels-Spratlys will involve more of missiles and less of large carrier fleets.


America is not into territorial claims, which are the role of the small nations defying

China—another reason why China is so brave in military expansion. It only wants free access to international shipping lanes. America and Japan, which exports all its oil from the Middle East via the Strait of Malacca, will not permit the closing of trade lanes. That is tantamount to strangling Japan’s economy.

If China claims territorial rights according to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos), which provides for a 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone for a claimant, it would theoretically own the entire Paracels-Spratlys, not considering Unclos exceptions on conflicting claims. Paradoxically, China refuses to go to court in The Hague, to defend its Unclos rights, in fear of losing a legal battle. The Hague decisions require compliance, but China has defiance. It wants the Paracels-Spratlys by military force, not by law. Its territorial claims are ridiculously based on ancient maps. Victory at The Hague for other claimants is thus good only as a psywar tactic of international pressure.

For the first time in human history, an emerging superpower is claiming a vast marine area of planet Earth, almost the entire South China Sea, by military force.

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 professor at Ateneo de Manila University.

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