China May Build Base at Scarborough Shoal

Island-building at Fiery Cross Reef, 2015 (CIMSEC)

Published Feb 10, 2017 9:03 PM by The Maritime Executive

In an interview this week, Philippine defense secretary Delfin Lorenzana said that it was likely that China would build an installation on disputed Scarborough Shoal.

"If we allow them, they will build,” he told AFP. “That’s very, very disturbing. [More] disturbing than Fiery Cross because this is so close . . . to us that is unacceptable."

Lorenzana was referring to a manmade island at Fiery Cross Reef, which China began building in 2014. It now boasts a runway 3,100 meters long – big enough for strategic bombers – plus an early warning radar site, anti-aircraft systems and anti-missile close-in weapons systems (CIWS). But while this installation is worrisome, a similar base at Scarborough would be more troubling: the shoal is just 140 nm away from the former U.S. naval base at Subic Bay. 

A modern airfield at Scarborough Shoal would pose "obvious strategic issues" for the Philippines and the U.S. Navy, said retired Rear Adm. Mike McDevitt, speaking to USNI. 

"Unsafe" encounter

Defense officials said Friday that a U.S. Navy P-3 Orion and a Chinese PLA KJ-200 early warning plane had an "unsafe" close encounter earlier this week. 

The aircraft came within 1,000 feet of each other in airspace over the South China Sea. A spokesman for Pacific Command said that the P-3 maritime surveillance aircraft was on a routine mission, and that the close approach was unintentional. An encounter like this is rare, the U.S. Navy says, and the Defense Department intends to address it through "appropriate diplomatic and military channels."

"We hope the U.S. side keeps in mind the present condition of relations between the two countries and militaries, adopts practical measures, and eliminates the origin of air and sea mishaps between the two countries," a Chinese defense official told state-owned media. 

Trump reaffirms "One China Policy"

On Friday President Donald Trump conceded to Beijing's demands that his administration should commit itself to America's longstanding "One China Policy." 

Ever since the Carter administration, America has recognized Beijing as the government of both mainland China and Taiwan – "One China" – and has not maintained formal relations with the Taiwanese government in Taipei. However, shortly after his election, Trump took a call from Taiwanese president Tsai Ing-wen, thereby raising questions about whether the U.S. might recognize Taiwan. 

Soon after, Trump threatened to use the “One China” policy as a negotiating tool in trade talks. "We're being hurt very badly by China with devaluation; with taxing us heavy at the borders when we don't tax them; with building a massive fortress in the middle of the South China Sea, which they should't be doing; and, frankly, with not helping us at all with North Korea," he told Fox in December. The move greatly angered Beijing, which considers "One China" the “bedrock” of U.S.-China relations, and Chinese president Xi Jinping appears to have put a halt to direct top-level contact until Trump formally committed to keeping the policy. 

In a phone call on Thursday night, "President Trump agreed, at the request of President Xi, to honor our One China policy," the White House said in a statement. Analysts suggested that his swift reversal would go a long ways towards defusing tensions, but could make long-term relations with Beijing difficult for Trump.

In negotiating with China, "threats concerning fundamental, core interests are counterproductive from the get-go," said a former head of the American Chamber of Commerce in China in an email to Reuters. “The end result [of backing down] is that Trump just confirmed to the world that he is a paper tiger.”