After Scarborough, is Ayungin next?

Chinese Air Force Maj. Gen. Zhang Zhaozhong

MANILA — Is China poised to repeat its takeover of Scarborough Shoal in Ayungin Shoal?

A Chinese Air Force general has boasted to China’s media about how its military took control of Scarborough Shoal, sealing it using a layered “cabbage (security) strategy” and transforming the island 124 miles west of Zambales province into an exclusive fishing ground for Chinese fisherman.

Chinese Air Force Maj. Gen. Zhang Zhaozhong said the tactic could be adopted in other islands that are occupied by the Philippines.

The transcript of Zhang’s recent television interview in Beijing was posted by China Daily Mail in its website last Tuesday.

China has been in virtual control of the Scarborough Shoal, which it calls “Huangyan Island,” which used to be an impact area for US bombing run exercises when the Americans still had military bases in the Philippines.

In April last year, a standoff between Philippine and Chinese ships took place after a Philippine Navy ship tried to accost Chinese fishing boats gathering giant clams, turtles and corals at the shoal.

Chinese ships later responded and prevented the Filipino ship from arresting the fishermen.

The Philippine Navy ship, BRP Gregorio del Pilar, was later replaced by a Coast Guard ship and Bureau of Fishery and Aquatic Resources vessel. However, the two ships withdrew due to supposedly inclement weather, leaving China in virtual control of the shoal.

“Since then, we have begun to take measures to seal and control the areas around Huangyan Island, seal and control continuously up to now,” said Zhang.

“In over one year period since then, there have been fishermen inside. Our fishermen are often there because there is lot of fish there. Fishermen go there in large ships and then sail small boats in the lagoon to fish. They can have shelter in the lagoon when there is a typhoon,” he said.

Defense officials have admitted that China has put up buoys at the shoal, which Philippine authorities are continuously monitoring pending the resolution of the dispute.

“The fishermen conduct normal production there. In the area around the island, fishing administration ships and marine surveillance ships are conducting normal patrols while in the outer ring there are navy warships. The island is thus wrapped layer by layer like a cabbage. As a result, a cabbage strategy has taken shape,” said Zhang.

Zhang said Filipino vessels have to ask permission from Chinese Navy and fishery administration officials if they want to go into the outermost part of the shoal, also known in the Philippines as Bajo de Masinloc.

“Therefore, our fishermen can carry out their production safely while our country’s marine rights and interests as well as sovereignty are safeguarded. Is that not satisfactory?” Zhang also said.

He said the takeover strategy can be adopted elsewhere by China without having to resort to war.

“You have invaded and then left. You have violated Chinese law and China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, haven’t you? Why did you point your guns at our fishermen?” he asked, apparently referring  to how the Philippine Navy ship accosted their fishing boats at the shoal in April 2012.

“As you have first violated the law and pointed your guns at our fishermen, you would never be allowed to enter the area,” added Zhang.

Zhang said China should pursue similar actions in the future and “grab the right timing to do them.”

“For those small islands, only a few troopers are able to station on each of them, but there is no food or even drinking water there. If we carry out the ‘cabbage’ strategy, you will not be able to send food and drinking water onto the islands. Without the supply for one or two weeks, the troopers stationed there will leave the islands on their own. Once they have left, they will never be able to come back,” said Zhang.

VIOLATOR

Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin said China, not the Philippines, is violating the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea that binds countries claiming the disputed Spratly Islands not to resort to use of threat or force.

“We have been adhering to the conduct, we’ve been following the DOC. We’ve not changed anything,” Gazmin told defense reporters in an ambush interview at the military general headquarters in Camp Aguinaldo.

Gazmin was reacting to the appeal by Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei for claimant-countries to fully and earnestly implement the DOC that also mandates the parties to refrain from actions that will amplify the dispute.

“They’re the ones who are not (following the DOC),” said Gazmin, adding that the violations are reflected in the series of diplomatic protests that the Philippine government filed against China.

The latest protest involved Chinese incursion at the Philippine-occupied Ayungin Shoal where 30 Chinese fishing boats, escorted by a Chinese Navy frigate and two Chinese Maritime Surveillance ships, were seen last May 8. As of last Monday, the two CMS are still at the shoal.

A Philippine Navy ship is due to proceed to Ayungin Shoal to bring supplies for the soldiers who are staying at the landing ship tank BRP Sierra Madre that ran aground in the area in 1999.

NEW FLASHPOINT

The wrecked navy transport ship could be the next flashpoint in the South China Sea as Philippine officials expressed fears that the Chinese ships will block supplies to about a dozen Filipino Marines there.

The Ayungin Shoal, known as Second Thomas Shoal, is a strategic gateway to Reed Bank, believed to be rich in oil and natural gas. In 2010, Manila awarded an Anglo-Filipino consortium a license to explore for gas on Reed Bank but drilling stalled last year due to the presence of Chinese ships.

Manila says Reed Bank, about 80 nautical miles west of Palawan island at the southwestern end of the Philippine archipelago, is within the country’s 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone.

Beijing says it is part of the Spratlys, a group of 250 uninhabitable islets spread over 165,000 square miles, claimed entirely by China, Taiwan and Vietnam and in part by Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines.

The Department of Foreign Affairs said China is not in a position to dictate what the Philippines can do within its maritime domain.

“China should pull out of the area because under international law, they do not have the right to be there,” Raul Hernandez, spokesman of the foreign affairs department, had said.

He has said the Chinese ships were a “provocation and illegal presence.”

Hong said on Tuesday the Second Thomas Shoal was part of the Spratly Islands, over which China had “indisputable sovereignty”.

“It is beyond reproach for Chinese boats to carry out patrols in these waters,” Hong said, adding China called on all parties to “refrain from taking actions that complicate the situation.”

As of Tuesday, two Chinese marine surveillance ships remained in the area, Philippine navy spokesman Col. Edgardo Arevalo said, adding the fishing boats and the frigate had left.

“The presence of those ships is a clear and present danger,” said another senior Philippine navy officer, who declined to be identified as he is not authorized to speak to media. He said the Philippines believed China was trying to pressure it to leave the shoal.

“We don’t want to wake up one day with fresh structures sitting near our navy ship there. We have to bite the bullet and strengthen our position there or risk losing the territory.”

Ian Storey, a scholar at Singapore’s Institute of South East Asian Studies, said tension at Second Thomas Shoal could prove more dangerous than last year’s stand-off at unoccupied Scarborough Shoal, given the presence of Filipino troops.

“It is hard to imagine China using force to gain full control over Second Thomas, but some kind of blockade to drive out the Philippines’ troops would have to be a possibility,” Storey said. “There is a real chance of escalation or miscalculation.”

The tension comes just before U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel meets his Asia-Pacific counterparts at the so-called Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore from May 31 to June 2. The South China Sea is on the agenda of the regional security forum.

Second Thomas Shoal is one of several possible flashpoints in the South China Sea that could force the United States to intervene in defense of its Southeast Asian allies.

Gazmin will participate in the security forum and will speak about “New Trends in Asia-Pacific Security”, along with Lt. Gen. Qi Jianguo, the deputy chief of staff of the China’s People’s Liberation Army, and Canadian defense minister Peter MacKay.

Gazmin said he is due to have bilateral talks with his counterparts from US, New Zealand, Singapore, and Malaysia but not with China.

Asean foreign ministers are also due to meet in Thailand in August to forge a position on the code of conduct in the South China Sea before meeting Chinese officials in late August or early September in Beijing.