Strategic triangle in South China Sea

10:06:00 AM
MANILA - China’s land reclamation activities at Panganiban Reef, internationally known as Mischief Reef, could be its first step in gradually restricting the Philippines’ access to Ayungin Shoal and the Recto Bank in the West Philippine Sea.

But for one analyst, the bigger objective of China is to put in place a “strategic triangle” in the South China Sea which are anchored on three areas: the Paracel Islands, Fiery Cross Reef and Scarborough Shoal.

“If China succeeds, they would control the South China Sea and devour most of the West Philippine Sea,” asserted former congressman and naval officer Roilo Golez. Golez went to the Philippine Military Academy and US Naval Academy at Annapolis, Maryland where he graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree, major in Mathematics and Operations Analysis. This, he stressed, is a “simple, plain classic power play devoid of any basis in international law.”

The Washington DC-based Center for Strategic and International Studies showed the presence of several dredgers and cargo ships at Mischief Reef, engaged in massive reclamation activities. A satellite image, dated March 16, 2015, showed the creation of small artificial islands which had fortified seawalls. Another image showed the presence of a transport ship that can carry up to 800 soldiers and 20 armed amphibious vehicles.

The Mischief Reef land reclamation is the latest activity carried out by Beijing within the Philippine zone of the disputed Spratly Islands. Several aerial surveillance photos taken earlier this year showed the massiveness and advanced nature of the reclamation. The activities have increased China’s footprint in the disputed areas and allow it to position its forces to project its influence and control over the area.

The Mischief Reef land reclamation is of serious concern to the Philippines because of its proximity to Ayungin Shoal and Recto Bank. The Philippines maintains a small military garrison at Ayungin (internationally known as Second Thomas Shoal) composed of Philippine Marines, who are using the BRP Sierra Madre as their base.

Recto Bank, on the other hand, is believed to have large oil, gas and mineral deposits.

Mischief Reef is about 50 kilometers away from Ayungin Shoal and is around 400 kilometers away from Palawan. In 2013, a confidential military report warned of increased Chinese naval activity in Ayungin Shoal with the objective of forcing the Philippines to abandon the BRP Sierra Madre.

Earlier this year, Chinese ships tried to block anew Philippine ships from resupplying the Marines on the BRP Sierra Madre. In May last year, resupply ships were caught in a tension-filled "cat-and-mouse" chase with Chinese ships as they tried to approach the Sierra Madre.

Defense Department spokesman Dr. Peter Galvez concedes that if a Chinese facility at Mischief Reef becomes operational, it can affect Philippine operations in Ayungin.

“It is of grave concern and a great threat to our national security,” Galvez said, warning Beijing’s continued land reclamation activities – if not stopped – will have serious implications for the whole Asia-Pacific region.

 “If not immediately stopped and dismantled, it will cause a major shift in regional peace and security. It will have an impact on multiple dimensions of national security today and in the long term,” Galvez added.

Former Congressman Roilo Golez, who has been following developments in the South China Sea dispute, believes China also aims to control Recto Bank. Recto Bank, internationall known as Reed Bank, is located 80 nautical miles west of Palawan and is estimated to hold 5 billion barrels of oil as well as 55 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.

Asked about a possible scenario where Beijing uses its Mischief Reef base to blockade the BRP Sierra Madre, Golez admitted it is “very possible.”

Ayungin is near Mischief Reef and Recto Bank, and Golez believes "China is eyeing both a strategic and economic (oil and gas) target.”

Golez stressed, however, that the bigger objective of China’s land reclamation activities is “to build a strategic triangle with the apex at the Paracel Islands, the southwest corner at the cluster of new reclamation projects with Fiery Cross at the lead and the northeast corner at Scarborough Shoal.”

The Paracel Islands are being disputed by China and Vietnam. China has built a runway on Woody Island, which is part of the Paracel Island Group.

Fiery Cross Reef is widely seen as China’s main base of operations in the Spratly Islands as it is building a runway and a harbor, which can serve as a base for its submarines. China is also expanding its garrisons in Gaven Reef, Cuarteron Reef, Johnson Reef and Subi Reef.

In 2013, a confidential government report noted the presence of several Chinese ships in Scarborough Shoal as well as buoys. "The sighting of buoys in Scarborough Shoal is seen as a prelude to occupation as patterned from the occupation of Mischief Reef in 1995. Likewise, the Chinese Coast Guard ships frequenting the vicinity of the shoal are probably stationed… to be able to respond quickly to a contingency at Scarborough Shoal,” the report said.

“If China succeeds, they would control the South China Sea and devour most of the West Philippine Sea,” Golez said, stressing that this is a “simple, plain classic power play devoid of any basis in international law.”

The Strategic triangle in South China Sea.

The Chinese reclamation in South China Sea (West Philippine Sea)  Panganiban Reef, internationally known as Mischief Reef.


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