In the midst of the furor over Hainan province’s new fishing regulations covering nearly sixty percent of the South China Sea, an unnamed Chinese writer penned an article in the Chinese-language publication Qianzhan (Prospects) arguing that China would recover Zhongye Island by force during 2014 as part of a long-term naval expansion plan.
The article likely would have attracted little attention outside China until a summary was translated into English by Chan Kai Yee (who is now often mistakenly listed as the original piece’s author). The summary was published by the China Daily Mail on January 13 under the headline, “China and the Philippines: The reason why a battle for Zhongye (Pag-asa) Island seems unavoidable.”
It is common for retired Chinese military officers and civilian ultranationalists to write about the South China Sea and threaten the Philippines and Vietnam with military action for “stealing” Chinese territory. The Qianzhan article cites unnamed “experts” that the People’s Liberation Army Navy has drawn up a detailed combat plan to seize Zhongye Island this year because of its strategic significance.
Zhongye is better known as Thitu Island or Pag-asa in Tagalog. It is the second largest island in the Spratlys, estimated to cover an area of 37.2 hectares (or 0.14 square miles/0.36 square kilometers). Itu Aba is the largest of the islands in the archipelago and covers an area of 46 hectares in size. It is occupied by Taiwan.
Pag-asa Island lies exposed in the upper northwest quadrant of the Spratlys at the outer boundary of islands and features forming the archipelago. To its west lies the open South China Sea.
Pag-asa Island is designated a town belonging to the Philippine municipality of Kalayaan. It boasts a civilian population of nearly two hundred. Pag-asa contains a number of structures including a municipal building, a community hall, health center, nursery school, water plant, communications tower and an airstrip.
The airstrip, known as Rancudo Airfield, is 1,400 meters in length and services both civilian and military aircraft, including the Philippine Air Force’s C-130 cargo plane. In March 2011, the Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) Eduardo Oban announced plans to upgrade the airfield and repair army barracks. About fifty AFP soldiers are stationed on Pag-asa.
As the article noted, control over Zhongye Island would enable China to exert control over a vast expanse of the South China Sea if it constructed naval and air bases there. The author argued, “the world’s largest aircraft carrier, the [USS] Ford, costs $12.8 billion to build but only has a deck area of 0.026 square km. An air base established on Zhongye Island will be a dozen times larger and cost much less, but it is unsinkable and has a very long service life.”
How plausible is the Qianzhan‘s scenario?
China could easily achieve strategic surprise and seize Pag-asa Island. China could disguise an invasion force as a flotilla engaged in routine naval exercises in the South China Sea. In March-April last year, for example, China assembled a small flotilla to conduct combat training exercises in the South China Sea.
The flotilla comprised the modern amphibious assault ship Jinggangshan, two guided missile frigates and a guided missile destroyer. When the flotilla reached the waters surrounding Mischief Reef, Chinese state television showed pictures of People’s Liberation Army marines in hovercraft storming the beach of a Chinese-occupied islet supported by armed helicopters.
A similar flotilla could set sail ostensibly to undertake normal combat training exercises. It could achieve strategic surprise by veering off suddenly and invading Pag-asa. The Philippines would have little or no warning time to prepare to its defense. The island would probably be taken in a few hours or less.
This scenario assumes that U.S. intelligence and its associated national technical means failed to detect signs of China’s preparations in advance, thus providing no warning time to take action to deter China. China’s seizure of Pag-asa could be expected to follow some signs of deteriorating relations between China and the Philippines or a worsening security situation in the region. These developments might signal a change in China’s intent. This would normally trigger a closer look at Chinese naval and air activities by U.S. intelligence.
China’s seizure of Pag-asa Island would be an act of war. Currently, the Armed Forces of the Philippines would be unable to mount any meaningful response. Chinese destroyers and frigates would provide air defense if the Philippines scrambled jet fighters from the nearest air base on Palawan Island, over 480 km distant. The Philippine Navy would be woefully outgunned.
The Philippines would immediately seek consultations with the United States under their Mutual Defense Treaty to work out a response.
The political fallout from seizing Pag-asa would be a huge set back for Chinese diplomacy. ASEAN would likely adopt an uncompromising political position and demand the immediate withdrawal of Chinese forces. ASEAN would receive political backing from the international community. Chinese aggression could even be raised at the United Nation,; but China would veto any discussion by the Security Council.
China’s actions in seizing Pag-asa Island would set off a race by claimant states to beef up the defense of their islands. This would likely include increased combat air patrols, anti-shipping exercises, and the deployment of conventional submarines. Several of the larger islands could be expected to house anti-ship cruise missiles.
It is regrettable that Qianzhan’s conflict scenario, like so much commentary churned out by retired Chinese military officers and ultranationalists, does not go beyond the bravado of acclaiming a swift Chinese victory to consider the costs of such action to China’s international standing, damage to its economy, and the risks of escalating military conflict.
Many other Chinese writers and analysts argue in support of China’s peaceful rise and support President Xi Jinping’s initiative for a China-ASEAN Treaty of Good Neighborliness, Friendship and Cooperation. These writers and analysts should criticize the hawkish views by retired military commentators and ultranationalist writers for being counterproductive to China’s longer-term interests.
The Philippines is to be congratulated for not rising to the bait. Official spokesmen declined to comment on an article they claimed was unofficial and unverified. Chinese media have already denied the veracity of the report.