By Perry Diaz
In an unexpected – but not surprising -- turn of events in the Scarborough Shoal territorial dispute between the Philippines and China, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at a press conference last April 30 in Washington DC announced that the United States is maintaining a “neutral stand” in their dispute. However, in an attempt to downplay the effect of the Obama administration’s hands-off policy, Clinton said: “While we do not take sides in the competing sovereignty claims to land features in the South China Sea, as a Pacific power we have a national interest in freedom of navigation, the maintenance of peace and stability, respect for international law, and the unimpeded, lawful commerce across our sea lanes.”
For the first time, Uncle Sam made it crystal clear that the “little brown brother” is on his own in the territorial dispute with China over a shoal in the middle of the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea). It seems that Uncle Sam doesn’t see any strategic or economic value in a group of islets and rocks that is submerged in high tide.
However, to allay the Philippines’ fear of Chinese encroachment, Clinton said, “The US supports a collaborative diplomatic process by all those involved for resolving the various disputes that they encounter. We oppose the threat or use of force by any party to advance its claims. And we will remain in close contact with our ally, the Philippines.”
Mutual defense treaty
In my article, “Scarborough Incident” (April 26, 2012), I wrote: “In my opinion, the only time that the U.S. would intervene is when her national interests are threatened. And for as long as China doesn’t block the shipping lanes in the South China Sea or prevent any country from exploring for oil or natural gas in the South China Sea, the U.S. would not intervene in any territorial dispute between China and the Philippines over Scarborough Shoal or the Spratlys. Who cares who owns these little islands as long as the waters around them are open to exploration… or exploitation?”
Well, what else could Clinton say knowing full well that in the event of an armed conflict between the Philippines and China, the U.S. would not be able to send the Marines and deploy them on Philippine territory because the Philippine Constitution prohibits the stationing of foreign military forces on its territory. But what would the self-proclaimed “nationalists” do if U.S. military forces arrived?
In this situation the “nationalists” might just swallow their “national pride” lest China would claim our country for the second time in history. It must be remembered that in early 1400s, China established a colonial government in Lingayen in the province of Pangasinan and proclaimed the entire island of Luzon as her territory. However, during that short time China ruled Luzon, she didn’t have any control beyond Pangasinan.
In my article, “What if China attacked the Spratlys?” (July 13, 2011), I wrote: “By just looking at the two countries’ military forces, there is no way the Philippines could survive a Chinese attack. The Philippine Navy has one World War II-vintage frigate and an Air Force that consists mainly of helicopters and no jet fighters. In a matter of days the entire Spratly archipelago could be in the possession of China — without firing a single shot!
“The only thing that is deterring China – momentarily — from attacking the Spratlys is the US-Philippine Mutual Defense Treaty, on the presumption that the US would come to the aid of the Philippines if the latter invoked the Mutual Defense Treaty. But that is a big ‘IF’ because President Barack Obama would have difficulty in convincing Congress and the American people to go to war in the South China Sea while the US is still embroiled in wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya… unless her national interests and security are threatened.”
With the war in Iraq and the revolution in Libya over, Obama has set the timetable for the withdrawal of American combat troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2014. However, he signed an agreement with Afghan President Hamid Karzai to maintain American military presence in Afghanistan for 10 more years after the combat troops have gone home. Interestingly, his announcement followed Clinton’s pronouncement of U.S. “neutrality” in the Scarborough Shoal dispute. Was it a coincidence or part of a grand plan?
With the recent agreement between the U.S. and Japan to relocate 9,000 U.S. Marines stationed in Okinawa to other bases in Western Pacific, does it seem that the U.S. is downsizing its military presence in Asia-Pacific? I don’t think so. On the contrary, the Obama administration is establishing alliances with other nations in South Asia and South East Asia to contain a rising China, which has become more assertive – and aggressive – in trying to control the oil-rich South China Sea. In 2010, China claimed the entire South China Sea as one of her “core national interests” just like Tibet and Taiwan.
New American geostrategy
In November 2011, U.S. and Australia announced the expansion of American military presence in Australia with the initial deployment of 2,500 combat-ready marines in Darwin, Australia, which is strategically located in the Timor Sea. The U.S. will also station warplanes in airbases in Northern Territory and warships including submarines at the HMAS Stirling naval base in Western Australia.
In addition, U.S. would eventually station military aircraft including Global Hawk spy drones in the Cocos Islands in the Indian Ocean, which is a territory of Australia. These unmanned high-altitude “Spy in the Sky” drones could cover the troublesome South China Sea where six countries (China, Taiwan, Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam, and the Philippines) are claiming the oil-rich Spratly archipelago.
The Cocos Islands would provide a closer presence to the South China Sea than the British-owned Diego Garcia Island, which is 1,478 nautical miles farther west in the Indian Ocean. The lease of the U.S. base at Diego Garcia is due to expire in 2016. The U.S. would then close the base and move the operations to Cocos Islands, which is 1,992 nautical miles west of Darwin.
The strategic location of the Cocos Islands – also known as Keeling Islands -- is crucial because of its proximity to three shipping lanes: Strait of Hormuz, Strait of Malacca, and the Timor Sea. With the ability of the U.S. to control these choke points, Chinese ships could be blocked from transporting oil from the Middle East where more than 50% of her foreign oil comes from.
With China’s dependence on foreign oil, her strategic oil reserves will be depleted in less than 30 days if war with the U.S. breaks out.
It’s all about oil
It is interesting to note that in the past several years, state-owned Chinese oil companies have been buying stocks from oil fields in Australia. It seems that China is looking at Australia as a major source for oil. If China starts getting Australian oil, her dependence on Middle East oil will decrease. Makes one wonder if the expansion of U.S. military presence in Australia might have any bearing on China’s infusion of investment capital into Australia’s oil industry?
Today’s geopolitics is like a game of chess. A chess grand master doesn’t win by chance or luck; he wins by planning his moves in advance and executing them cunningly. Could it be that Uncle Sam is going to sacrifice Scarborough Shoal in his opening gambit to checkmate China?