Why China Might Seek to Occupy Scarborough Shoal

By Robert Klipper / March 29, 2016 / The Diplomat

Chinese vessels have been spotted in the waters around Scarborough Shoal, a hotly contested atoll just 140 miles off the coast of Manila, the Philippine capital on the island of Luzon. Details remain sparse, but the presence of survey craft suggests preparations may be underway for China to occupy Scarborough and build a base there.

Occupying Scarborough would send shock waves across an already tense region, and could deal a serious setback to American efforts to portray the United States as a credible counterweight to China. China’s audacious island building campaign has already lifted thousands of acres of sand from the depths of the sea. In response, the United States has asserted its freedom of navigation rights, made critical statements, and strengthened relationships with ASEAN nations. But a more assertive approach will be necessary to persuade China that establishing a permanent military presence so close to the capital of the Philippines will come with significant costs.

The Philippines and China are just two of the six countries that lay claim to the islands, rocks, and reefs that speckle the map of the South China Sea. These overlapping claims to mostly barren land features are driven by a desire to control a region at the strategic crossroads of the 21st century. Over $5 trillion in trade, including roughly one-third of global crude oil shipments, passes through the South China Sea annually. The countries bordering the South China Sea are home to 2 billion people; 500 million live within 100 miles of the coast. The waters are vital sources of food for this coastal population, and portions of the seabed are believed to be rich in hydrocarbons.

Reef by reef, rock by rock, shoal by shoal, control over this critically important region has slowly shifted. According to Peter Dutton, a professor at the Naval War College and leading expert on the South China Sea, “China’s island building in the Spratly Islands… fundamentally changed regional political and security dynamics.” Admiral Harry B. Harris Jr., head of U.S. Pacific Command, has said that China’s complex of missile sites, fighter jets, and surveillance stations based on newly constructed artificial islands will give China “de facto control of the South China Sea in any scenario short of war.”

Harris’s comments are mostly true but at present slightly overbroad; an important gap in China’s coverage remains in the waters between Manila and the southern tip of Taiwan. This gap includes the Luzon Strait, a gateway to the Pacific. Building a base at Scarborough Shoal would close this gap and truly give China the ability to exert influence over the entire South China Sea.

According to Bonnie Glaser of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, “A base at Scarborough would have enormous strategic significance for China, especially in combination with the other facilities they have built on Mischief Reef and Fiery Cross.  The Chinese will be able to extend control over larger swaths of air space and water.” Glaser believes “that the Chinese intend to dredge at the shoal and build another base.”

According to Timothy Heath, an international defense analyst with the RAND Corporation, a base at Scarborough could not only “provide China better surveillance of U.S. and Philippine forces operating” on the main Philippine island of Luzon, but also lead to an “increase in intimidation with peacetime deployment of missiles.”

Although occupying Scarborough Shoal offers tactical and symbolic benefits, Chinese leaders considering this course of action will naturally balance those benefits against the likelihood of mission success and possible international repercussions.Read more...

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