The People’s Republic of China (PRC) is reportedly drawing up plans to invade the Spratly Islands this year, 2014. China’s claim is based on an assertion that the Han Dynasty had “discovered” these islands in 2 BC. The islands were claimed to have been marked on maps compiled during the time of Eastern Han Dynasty and Eastern Wu (one of the Three Kingdoms). Since the Yuan Dynasty in the 12th century, several islands that may be the Spratlys have been labeled as Chinese territory, followed by the Ming Dynasty and the Qing Dynasty from the 13th to 19th Century. In 1755, archaeological surveys on the remains of Chinese pottery and coins have been found in the islands and are cited as proof for the PRC claim.
A report of business and strategy news platform Qianzhan (Prospects) in Mandarin was translated by English news site China Daily Mail and titled “Chinese troops will seize Pag-asa Island, which is called by China Zhongye, back from the Philippines in 2014.”
The report said the Philippines is so arrogant as to announce in the New Year that it will increase its navy and air force deployment at Pag-asa Island which is part of the disputed Spratly Islands.
“According to experts, the Chinese Navy has drawn a detailed combat plan to seize the island and the battle will be restricted within the South China Sea. The battle is aimed at recovery of the island stolen by the Philippines from China,” the report said.
The Philippines’ arrogance, the report said, is an intolerable insult to China.
“There will be no invasion into Filipino territories,” the report said.
The Spratlys (collectively referred to as Kalayaan by the Philippine government) are one of three archipelagos of the South China Sea (also known as the West Philippine Sea) which comprise more than 30,000 islands and reefs and which complicate governance and economics in that region of Southeast Asia. Such small and remote islands have little economic value in themselves but are important in establishing international boundaries. No native islanders inhabit the islands which offer rich fishing grounds and may contain significant oil and natural gas reserves.
About 45 islands are occupied by relatively small numbers of military forces from the People’s Republic of China, Taiwan (ROC), Vietnam, the Philippines, and Malaysia. Brunei has also claimed an exclusive economic zone in the southeastern part of the Spratlys encompassing just one area of small islands on Louisa Reef. This has led to escalating tensions between numerous countries over the disputed status of the islands.
Pag-asa island has been occupied by the Philippines since 1970s after the government purchased the whole Free Territory of Freedomland from Tomás Cloma. It has a 1,400-metre (1,500 yd) unconcretized airstrip (named as Rancudo Airfield) which serves both military and commercial air transportation needs. It was the only airstrip in the whole Spratly chain that can accommodate large aircraft, such as Philippine Air Force’s (PAF) C-130 cargo planes, until the ROC constructed an airstrip on Itu Aba in 2007.
An 1801 map of the East Indies Isles which shows the placement of the Spratly islands. Most of the names have changed since then. In 1956, a private Filipino citizen, Tomas Cloma, unilaterally declared a state on 53 features in the South China Sea, calling it “Freedomland”. As the Republic of China moved to occupy the main island in response, Cloma sold his claim to the Philippine government, which annexed (de jure) the islands in 1978, calling them Kalayaan. On June 11, 1978, President Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines issued Presidential decree No. 1596, declaring the Spratly Islands (referred to therein as the Kalayaan Island Group) as Philippine territory.
The Philippine claim to the Spratlys on a geographical basis can be summarized using the assertion that the Spratlys are distinct from other island groups in the South China Sea, because of the size of the biggest island in the group. A second argument used by the Philippines regarding their geographical claim over the Spratlys is that all the islands claimed by the Philippines lie within its 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zone according to the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. This argument still requires that the islands were res nullius (that there was no prior effective sovereignty exercised over the territory), though. The Philippines also argue, under maritime law that the People’s Republic of China can not extend its baseline claims to the Spratlys because the PRC is not an archipelagic state.
On 2 August 2012, the United States Senate unanimously passed a resolution declaring that China’s recent actions to unilaterally assert control of disputed territories in the South China Sea “are contrary to agreed upon principles with regard to resolving disputes and impede a peaceful resolution.”
In a statement released on 3 August 2012, United States Department of State deputy spokesman Patrick Ventrell said that the US has a “national interest in the maintenance of peace and stability, respect for international law, freedom of navigation, and unimpeded lawful commerce in the South China Sea.” He added that the US does not take a position on competing territorial claims and that it urges all involved parties to clarify and pursue their territorial and maritime claims in accordance with international law. He further said the US is urging all parties to take steps to lower tensions in keeping with the 1992 ASEAN Declaration on the South China Sea and the 2002 ASEAN-China Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea.
A Mutual Defense Treaty between the US and the Philippines signed in 1951 states that “Each Party recognizes that an armed attack in the Pacific Area on either of the Parties would be dangerous to its own peace and safety and declares that it would act to meet the common dangers in accordance with its constitutional processes,” which means that regardless of whatever lack of “position” the US government takes on the matter of the dispute itself could be trumped if ever military conflict between China and the Philippines escalates.
The US together with Great Britain have demonstrated a capability to rapidly deploy large military forces into the region back in November 2013 after super-typhoon Haiyan (a.k.a. Yolanda) devastated much of the central Philippine islands. The military hardware and personnel sent by the US alone, supposedly to aid in the relief and recovery effort following the disaster, was awesome to say the least. It consisted of a naval contingent led by the aircraft carrier USS George Washington equipped with more than 80 military aircraft including the state-of-the-art V-22 Osprey tiltrotor vertical take off and landing (VTOL) aircraft (the first of its kind in the world put into active service). It is likely that the Haiyan disaster presented itself to the US military as an excellent opportunity to further evaluate the battle readiness of these new weapons systems.
The deployment of military resources into the region by the US and her allies in the days following the exit of Haiyan from the Philippines was swift and efficient and highlighted the usual severe and often fatal paralysis of the Philippine government in the face of crises requiring fast military response. Indeed, the Philippines has long relied on the United States for military defense. The Philippines’ military capability and state of military preparedness had progressively degenerated since the country gained its independence from the United States in 1946.
The country’s vulnerability to external threats was also exacerbated by a shortsighted 1991 decision to not renew the US’s lease on huge military bases it built all over the country. The US naval base in Subic Bay at its peak was capable of supporting 9,000 military personnel and was home to the US Navy Seventh Fleet back in the good ‘ol days. Furthermore, the US military presence there and in other parts of the Philippines contributed at least $1 billion to the national economy per annum. The Philippines also sits smack within vital sea lanes that serve most of East Asia, specifically the Straits of Malacca which is one of the world’s busiest and most important shipping lanes.
Since its withdrawal from the Philippines in 1991, US interest in Philippine affairs and wherewithal to honour its commitments under existing defense treaties has wavered. But the Philippines remains important to the US because it is located near the Straits of Malacca, is within missile and airstrike shot of one notably belligerent Korean regime, and is a more convenient staging platform for any sort of strategic “deterrence” position America aspires to taking in the next several years to balance military power in a region surrounded by the emerging might of China and India.
Unfortunately for the good guys, China remains committed to its resolve to enforce its claim on what it considers its territories in the area. According to China’s state media, a “counterstrike” will be launched against Philippine forces if the Philippine government does not stand down on its provocative activities in the area…
The overseas edition of the People’s Daily, the official newspaper of the Chinese Communist Party, said in a front-page commentary that the Philippines had committed “seven sins” in the South China Sea.
These include the “illegal occupation” of the Spratly Islands, inviting foreign capital to engage in oil and gas development in the disputed waters and promoting the “internationalization” of the waters, said the commentary.
The Philippines has called on the United States to act as a “patron”, while ASEAN has become an “accomplice,” said the commentary, which does not amount to official policy but can reflect the government’s thinking.
“The Philippines, knowing that it’s weak, believes that ‘a crying child will have milk to drink’,” the People’s Daily said, accusing Manila of resorting to many “unscrupulous” tricks in the disputed waters.
China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi had warned last year that “countries with territorial claims in the South China Sea that look for help from third parties will find their efforts ‘futile’, adding that the path of confrontation would be ‘doomed’.”
[NB: Parts of this article were lifted from the Wikipedia.org articles “Thitu Island”, “Spratly Islands”, and “Spratly Islands dispute” in a manner compliant to the terms stipulated in the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License that governs usage of content made available in this site. Photos of BRP Gregorio del Pilar, US Marine Osprey, and Chinese destroyer in Pearl Harbr courtesy Building for a Better Philippines, NBCNews.com and China People’s Daily respectively.]
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