A hard lesson from the 1930s and from the Cold War is that aggression must be checked when it occurs. Inevitably, aggressors start small, with narrow claims, that if unchecked escalate to major conflict. The world is witnessing this aggression today in the South China Sea. The People’s Republic of China (PRC) has used brute force to assert their “territorial” claim over the South China Sea, a sea area 30% larger than the Mediterranean Sea, where some $5 trillion worth of goods transit each year. On August 5, Chinese Coast Guard (CCG) ships, the size of a U.S. Navy destroyer and with reinforced hulls for ramming, obstructed the Republic of the Philippine’s, an American treaty ally, resupply mission to their outpost aboard the ex-U.S. Navy WWII-era ship, the Sierra Madre, at Second Thomas Shoal in the South China Sea.
As the U.S. State Department noted, the PRC’s CCG ships fired water cannons and employed unsafe blocking maneuvers which “interfered with the Philippines’ lawful exercise of high seas freedom of navigation and jeopardized the safety of the Philippine vessels and crew…by impeding necessary provisions from reaching the Filipino servicemembers stationed at Second Thomas Shoal.” Additionally, and for at least the second time, the State Department reaffirmed that “an armed attack on Philippine public vessels, aircraft, and armed forces—including those of its Coast Guard in the South China Sea—would invoke U.S. mutual defense commitments under Article IV of the 1951 U.S. Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty” (MDT).
Unperturbed by the State Department’s announcement, the PRC’s Embassy in Manila has twice called on the Philippines to remove the ship that was run aground in 1999, which lies well within their Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), as Beijing was threatening to seize it as well. For their part the new Chief of Staff of the Philippines Armed Forces, General Romeo Brawner, labeled the attack as an “act of war.”
The PRC’s barbarism at Second Thomas Shoal is not new or unexpected for anyone who has watched their actions in the South China Sea for the past three decades. Starting with Beijing’s illegal seizure of Mischief Reef, now a major Chinese Naval Air Station, from the Philippines in 1995 or their seizure of Scarborough Shoal in 2012, the PRC has not wavered from achieving its stated goal of territorial sovereignty over the South China Sea.
Beijing also has an established track record of violating diplomatic agreements for the peaceful resolution of the disputed sovereignty claims in the South China Sea. For instance, since 2000, when both the PRC and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) signed the “Declaration on the Code of Conduct” (DOC), the PRC has violated every facet of that agreement.
Even in this most recent event at Second Thomas Shoal, the PRC violated the following elements of the DOC: First, they did not “explore ways for building trust and confidence;” second, they did not “resolve territorial and jurisdictional disputes by peaceful means;” third, they did violate the agreement to not “resort to the threat or use of force,” fourth, they did not “exercise self-restraint in the conduct of activities that would complicate or escalate disputes and affect peace and stability;” fifth, they did not “ensure just and humane treatment of all persons who are either in danger or in distress.” And sixth, the PRC violated the DOC’s most important agreement to “respect for and commitment to the freedom of navigation in and overflight above the South China Sea in accordance with the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.”
Additionally, in 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague ruled the PRC has no lawful claim to the South China Sea, to include Second Thomas Shoal. Since then, Beijing has scoffed at the court’s ruling as being a “farce” and flaunted its defiance of the ruling through deeds such as what the CCG cutters did when using water cannons to drive away the Philippine navy from conducting what was a humanitarian mission for the sailors and marines aboard the Sierra Madre.
The record of PRC’s duplicity and aggressiveness in the South China Sea is well established, but what makes this recent event at Second Thomas Shoal different this time is that Beijing is now able to assert direct military force to seize territory by force.
Over the past decade since their seizure of Scarborough Shoal, the PRC has built and militarized seven military installations in the Spratly Islands, three of which are major naval and air bases the size of Pearl Harbor. They have also built the world’s largest navy, equipped with the most lethal supersonic anti-ship cruise missiles designed to sink the U.S. Seventh Fleet. Today the PRC is the dominant military power in the South China Sea and their Navy (the PLA Navy) operates at a 10-to-1 advantage over the U.S. Navy, and allied navies, on any given day of the year.
In the face of this renewed effort to drive the Philippines from Second Thomas Shoal, the U.S. must take the following measures to defeat the PRC’s coercion:
First and foremost, the United States cannot be seen to again abandon its treaty ally, the Republic of the Philippines. Lamentably, this occurred in 2012 at Scarborough Shoal when the then State Department Assistant Secretary for East Asia and Pacific, Kurt Campbell, and now current Biden Administration’s Asia Czar, inserted himself into negotiations between Beijing and Manila and pushed an “agreement” whereby both nations would have their ships depart the shoal at the same time. Incredibly, and to his shame, Campbell took the word of the PRC’s Foreign Ministry representative Fu Ying that the PRC would abide by the agreement. As the world now knows, the PRC did not keep their agreement and since June 2012 has had de facto sovereign control over Scarborough Shoal, territory well within the Philippines EEZ–their sovereign territory.
Second, the U.S. failure to support its treaty ally at Scarborough in 2012 is precisely why, and in accordance with the intentions of Article IV of the MDT, Secretary of State Antony Blinken should go before the United Nations and demand the world condemn the PRC’s dangerous actions at Second Thomas Shoals as being an uncivilized violation of basic human rights.
Yet more significant action is necessary, the U.S. must take action to defend its ally.
Third, as was advised by one of the authors in 2014, when the PRC conducted a similar effort to stop the Philippines from resupplying Second Thomas Shoal, the U.S. Seventh Fleet must assist our treaty ally to provide food and water to the sailors aboard the Sierra Madre. A combined operation to resupply the Sierra Madre through vertical replenishment (VERTREP) from the decks of Philippine and U.S. Navy warships must be conducted in the face of Beijing’s bullying. Given the current state of the Sierra Madre, the U.S. should partner with the Philippines and provide the materials and security assistance that would allow Manila to materially improve their presence at the Shoal. With just a few VERTREP missions by this combined naval force, the grounded Sierra Madre could be transformed into a sustainable outpost that would secure the Philippines’ legitimate claims to the shoal.
Assisting the Philippines reclaiming a few hundred square meters of its territory at Second Thomas Shoal is an essential first line of defense against the PRC’s unfettered territorial aggression. It is valuable to recall that Beijing’s territorial aggression has encompassed 3,500 square kilometers in the Spratly Islands over the past 10 years. Most importantly, such an operation would reinforce to the Philippines, and other allies, that U.S. commitments are trustworthy and beneficial, which is a pillar of the alliance networks built by the U.S. after World War II.
The stakes are that high. Beijing’s strategic goal is to drive a wedge between Manila and Washington, and then to dominate the Philippines. As a result of the failure to support the Philippines at Scarborough Shoal in 2012, the Philippines elected former President Duterte who used that incident as justification for turning away from America and towards the PRC. However, now under a more nationalistic and pro-American President Marcos, the Philippines is once again seeking United States security assistance in the face of Beijing’s naked aggression.
The Philippines, and the rest of the region, are intently watching and waiting for America’s actions, not just their words.
If America’s response in the face of this barbarism is like what happened at Scarborough in 2012, then this will cause an irreparable rift between the United States and the Philippines and may very well be the final nail in the coffin of American influence in the South China Sea and East Asia. The broader implication will affect the lives of millions who similarly seek America’s protection.
This is a moment of historical importance and is akin to standing with West Berlin during the Cold War. The enemy is attempting to coerce an ally from its territory. The time is now to stand against the PRC’s aggression and with an ally of the United States. The Biden Administration, led by the State Department, must perceive that this matter will define Biden’s legacy, U.S. national security and the national security of its allies. As a result of Biden’s choices, Washington and Manila will either be vanquished by Beijing or win a victory by adhering to alliance commitments and thereby defeating Beijing’s aggression.
James Fanell is a government fellow at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy, a retired captain in the U.S. Navy and a former director of intelligence and information operations for the U.S. Pacific Fleet. Bradley A. Thayer is Director of China Policy at the Center for Security Policy. He is the coauthor with Lianchao Han of Understanding the China Threat.