Prospect of Philippine Thaw Slows China’s Plans in South China Sea

BEIJING — China’s next big target for construction of an artificial island in the South China Sea has long been assumed to be a cluster of rocks poking above sapphire waters near the Philippines.

For several years, Chinese Coast Guard vessels and fishing trawlers have hovered around the reef, known as Scarborough Shoal. Giant dredges, suitable for building a military base, were recently rumored to be on their way there.

But the election last spring of President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines, who has since showered threats and epithets on the United States, has changed China’s calculation.

That does not mean China has given up on the long-term goal of what could be a vast military base on Scarborough Shoal. But for the moment, the plans appear to be postponed.

More important for Beijing right now, Chinese analysts say, is friendship with Mr. Duterte and an effort to wean his country away from its treaty alliance with Washington. Transforming a shoal right under his nose would ruin any chance of that, these analysts say.

“It would be irrational to build it into a fortress now,” said Zhang Baohui, a professor of international relations at Lingnan University in Hong Kong. “The government would like the Philippines to at least remain neutral in the rivalry between the United States and China. Now at least they have a chance.”

In July, an international tribunal in The Hague delivered a harsh rebuke toChina’s activities in the South China Sea, including its construction of artificial islands in the Spratly archipelago, not far from the Philippines. ButChina has ignored the decision.

The Obama administration praised the ruling as legally binding but refrained from trumpeting it. The reasoning was that little could be done, short of risking military confrontation, to stop the construction of facilities like hangars for fighter jets and buildings for radar and surface-to-air missiles.

Three of seven artificial islands in the Spratlys are designed as military bases, the American military says. Among them, Subi Reef has a harbor bigger than Pearl Harbor, and another, Mischief Reef, has a land perimeter nearly the size of the District of Columbia’s, a submarine warfare officer in the United States Navy, Thomas Shugart, said in a paper issued this past week.

Together, the three islands could probably accommodate as many as 17,000 military personnel and support aircraft able to deter or counter an American military intervention, said Mr. Shugart, who is serving as a senior military fellow at the Center for a New American Security in Washington but writes as an independent analyst. Read more…

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