In early 1995, less than three years after the departure of US forces from Subic and Clark following the termination of the Military Bases Agreement, China seized Mischief Reef from the Philippines. The sudden departure of US forces created a power vacuum in the West Philippine Sea that was naturally filled by the next power in waiting — China.
The Philippines, however, failed to prepare for what was obvious to many security analysts — that China would expand its territorial and maritime presence once US forces leave Subic and Clark. China’s sudden seizure of Mischief Reef caught Filipino leaders by surprise.
Today, history is repeating itself but in a grotesque way. The abrogation by President Duterte of the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) will remove the only remaining deterrence to China’s reclamation of Scarborough Shoal. President Duterte is not preparing any countermeasures to prevent China’s reclamation of Scarborough Shoal. Instead, Mr. Duterte has simply given up defending Scarborough Shoal, saying “We cannot stop China from doing these things.”
In March 2016, China sent dredgers to Scarborough Shoal. US surveillance satellites monitored the Chinese dredgers as they made their way through the South China Sea. President Obama called up President Xi Jinping, warning him of “serious consequences” if China would start reclaiming Scarborough Shoal. President Xi backed down and the Chinese dredgers turned back. The US had drawn a red line on Scarborough Shoal.
The following month, April 2016, US marines engaged in the Balikatan exercises in Luzon under the VFA conducted live firing of truck-mounted HIMARS missiles. These missiles, equipped with satellite guidance systems, have a 300-kilometer range and can easily obliterate any structure on Scarborough Shoal. At the same time, US A-10 “Warthog” warplanes, feared for their awesome firepower, flew around Scarborough Shoal. The HIMARS and the Warthogs sent a powerful message to China not to cross the US red line on Scarborough Shoal.
In February 2017, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana confirmed the US red line. Lorenza explained, “The Americans, that’s their red line. Red line meaning you can’t do that there, so they (China) did not do it.” Of course, China has not given up on its plan to build on Scarborough Shoal.
The abrogation of the VFA also abrogates the US red line on Scarborough Shoal. There will no longer be any rotational presence of US soldiers in the Philippines. The US has now a credible excuse if it does not intervene the moment China reclaims Scarborough Shoal.
Previously, Scarborough Shoal presented a test of US commitment to its allies. If China reclaims Scarborough Shoal, and the US fails to help the Philippines stop China, US credibility will suffer tremendously. US treaty allies like Japan and South Korea will begin to doubt the US commitment to rush to their aid in case of an armed attack by a third state. With the abrogation of the VFA, the US can simply sit out any Chinese reclamation on Scarborough Shoal without damaging US credibility to its allies.
The abrogation of the VFA hands over Scarborough Shoal to China while saving the US from either confronting Chinese warships over a few rocks in an uninhabited shoal or losing credibility to its allies. President Duterte is totally unconcerned over the imminent Chinese reclamation of Scarborough Shoal. Only Filipinos who take seriously the defense of Philippine territory are concerned.
The 2009 Amended Philippine Baselines Law expressly declares that Scarborough Shoal is Philippine territory. The first official map of the Philippines that the US colonial government published, the 1899 Jose Algue map, showed that Scarborough Shoal is Philippine territory. The 1734 Velarde-Bagay-Suarez map, an official Spanish map of the Philippines during the Spanish regime, showed that Scarborough Shoal is Philippine territory.
Under the Constitution, the “Armed Forces of the Philippines is the protector of xxx the State,” and its “goal is to secure xxx the integrity of the national territory.” The Constitution has designated President Duterte as the commander in chief of the Armed Forces. However, President Duterte has declared that he cannot stop China from building on Scarborough Shoal.
Will the Armed Forces — the protector of the nation’s territorial integrity — also tell the Filipino people that it cannot stop China from building an air and naval base on Scarborough Shoal, which is undeniably Philippine territory?