By JEFF HIMMELMAN
Ayungin Shoal lies 105 nautical miles from the Philippines. There’s little to commend the spot, apart from its plentiful fish and safe harbor — except that Ayungin sits at the southwestern edge of an area called Reed Bank, which is rumored to contain vast reserves of oil and natural gas. And also that it is home to a World War II-era ship called the Sierra Madre, which the Philippine government ran aground on the reef in 1999 and has since maintained as a kind of post-apocalyptic military garrison, the small detachment of Filipino troops stationed there struggling to survive extreme mental and physical desolation. Of all places, the scorched shell of the Sierra Madre has become an unlikely battleground in a geopolitical struggle that will shape the future of the South China Sea and, to some extent, the rest of the world.
In early August, after an overnight journey in a fishing boat that had seen better days, we approached Ayungin from the south and came upon two Chinese Coast Guard cutters stationed at either side of the reef. We were a small group: two Westerners and a few Filipinos, led by Mayor Eugenio Bito-onon Jr., whose territory includes most of the Philippine land claims in the South China Sea. The Chinese presence at Ayungin had spooked the Philippine Navy out of undertaking its regular run to resupply the troops there, but the Chinese were still letting some fishing boats through. We were to behave as any regular fishing vessel with engine trouble or a need for shelter in the shoal would, which meant no radio contact. As we throttled down a few miles out and waited to see what the Chinese Coast Guard might do, there was only an eerie quiet.
Bito-onon stood at the prow, nervously eyeing the cutters. Visits to his constituents on the island of Pag-asa, farther northwest, take him past Ayungin fairly frequently, and the mayor has had his share of run-ins. Last October, he said, a Chinese warship crossed through his convoy twice, at very high speed, nearly severing a towline connecting two boats. This past May, as the mayor’s boat neared Ayungin in the middle of the night, a Chinese patrol trained its spotlight on the boat and tailed it for an hour, until it became clear that it wasn’t headed to Ayungin. “They are becoming more aggressive,” the mayor said. “We didn’t know if they would ram us.”
We didn’t know if they would ram us, either. As we approached, we watched through binoculars and a camera viewfinder to see if the Chinese boats would try to head us off. After a few tense moments, it became clear that they were going to stay put and let us pass. Soon we were inside the reef, the Sierra Madre directly in front of us. As we chugged around to the starboard side, two marines peered down uncertainly from the top of the long boarding ladder. The ship’s ancient communications and radar equipment loomed above them, looking as if it could topple over at any time. After a series of rapid exchanges with the mayor, the marines motioned for us to throw up our boat’s ropes. Within a minute or two the fishing boat was moored and we were handing up our bags, along with cases of Coca-Cola and Dunkin’ Donuts that naval command had sent along as pasalubong, gifts for the hungry men on board.
The mayor and several others stood quietly on deck, watching them as they came. The message from the Chinese was unmistakable: We see you, we’ve got our eye on you, we are here.
As the Chinese boats made their half-circle in front of the Sierra Madre, the mayor mimed the act of them filming us. “Wave,” he said. “We’re going to be big on YouTube.”
To understand how Ayungin (known to the Western world as Second Thomas Shoal) could become contested ground is to confront, in miniature, both the rise of China and the potential future of U.S. foreign policy. It is also to enter into a morass of competing historical, territorial and even moral claims in an area where defining what is true or fair may be no easier than it has proved to be in the Middle East.
The Spratly Islands sprawl over roughly 160,000 square miles in the waters of the coasts of the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, Taiwan and China — all of whom claim part of the islands.
The Cabbage Strategy
China is currently in disputes with several of its neighbors, and the Chinese have become decidedly more willing to wield a heavy stick. There is a growing sense that they have been waiting a long time to flex their muscles and that that time has finally arrived. “Nothing in China happens overnight,” Stephanie Kleine-Ahlbrandt, the director of Asia-Pacific programs at the United States Institute of Peace, said. “Any move you see was planned and prepared for years, if not more. So obviously this maritime issue is very important to China.”
It is also very important to the United States, as Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton made clear at a gathering of the Association of Southeast Nations (Asean) in Hanoi in July 2010. Clinton declared that freedom of navigation in the South China Sea was a “national interest” of the United States, and that “legitimate claims to maritime space in the South China Sea should be derived solely from legitimate claims to land features,” which could be taken to mean that China’s nine-dash line was illegitimate. The Chinese foreign minister, Yang Jiechi, chafed visibly, left the meeting for an hour and returned only to launch into a long, vituperative speech about the danger of cooperation with outside powers.
President Obama and his representatives have reiterated America’s interest in the region ever since. The Americans pointedly refuse to take sides in the sovereignty disputes. But China’s behavior as it becomes more powerful, along with freedom of navigation and control over South China Sea shipping lanes, will be among the major global political issues of the 21st century. According to the Council on Foreign Relations, of the $5.3 trillion in global trade that transits the South China Sea each year, $1.2 trillion of it touches U.S. ports — and so American foreign policy has begun to shift accordingly.
In a major speech in Singapore last year, Leon Panetta, then the secretary of defense, described the coming pivot in U.S. strategy in precise terms: “While the U.S. will remain a global force for security and stability, we will of necessity rebalance toward the Asia-Pacific region.” He referred to the United States as a “Pacific nation,” with a capital “P” and no irony, and then announced a series of changes — most notably that the roughly 50-50 balance of U.S. naval forces between the Pacific and the Atlantic would become 60-40 Pacific by 2020. Given the size of the U.S. Navy, this is enormously significant.
In June of last year, the United States helped broker an agreement for both China’s and the Philippines’s ships to leave Scarborough Shoal peacefully, but China never left. They eventually blocked access to the shoal and filled in a nest of boats around it to ward off foreign fishermen.
“Since [the standoff], we have begun to take measures to seal and control the areas around the Huangyan Island,” Maj. Gen. Zhang Zhaozhong, of China’s People’s Liberation Army, said in a television interview in May, using the Chinese term for Scarborough. (That there are three different names for the same set of uninhabitable rocks tells you much of what you need to know about the region.) He described a “cabbage strategy,” which entails surrounding a contested area with so many boats — fishermen, fishing administration ships, marine surveillance ships, navy warships — that “the island is thus wrapped layer by layer like a cabbage.”
There can be no question that the cabbage strategy is in effect now at Ayungin and has been at least since May. General Zhang, in his interview several months ago, listed Ren’ai Shoal (the Chinese name for Ayungin) in the P.L.A.’s “series of achievements” in the South China Sea. He had already put it in the win column, even though eight Filipino marines still live there. He also seemed to take some pleasure in the strategy. Of taking territory from the Philippines, he said: “We should do more such things in the future. 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.”
The Philippines’ best hope for resisting China currently resides inside a set of glassy offices in the heart of the K Street power corridor in Washington. There, Paul Reichler, a lawyer at Foley Hoag who specializes in international territorial disputes, serves as the lead attorney for the Philippines in its arbitration case over their claims in the South China Sea. Initiated in January, the case seeks to invalidate China’s nine-dash line and establish that the territorial rights be governed by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which both China and the Philippines have signed and ratified. The subtleties of the case revolve around E.E.Z.’s and continental shelves, without expressly resolving sovereignty issues. China has refused to participate, but the Philippines has proceeded anyway.
The key element, as far as the Sierra Madre is concerned, is that the case is growing to reflect the new reality on the water. “Ayungin will be part of the case now, now that the Chinese have virtually occupied it,” Reichler told me. He was hoping that the tribunal would define Ayungin as a “submerged feature.” A submerged feature, he explained, is considered part of the seabed and belongs to whoever owns the continental shelf underneath it, not to whoever happens to be occupying it. “The fact that somebody physically occupies it doesn’t give them any rights,” he said.
This took a second to sink in. Historically, the physical presence of troops on the Sierra Madre had been a vital part of the Filipino strategy; currently their presence was the only thing stopping a complete Chinese takeover there. Wasn’t that against the Philippines’ own interests? “No,” Reichler said. “Not if we’re not occupying it.” What he meant was that the Philippines wants to nullify any claim to a submerged feature based on who has control above the water — which applies beyond Ayungin to Mischief Reef and others, which the Chinese currently occupy. Surely this is a strong legal strategy, calibrated for an international tribunal. But if this is the strategy, you couldn’t help wondering what those guys were still doing out there, getting choked off a little bit more each day, while the legal process sought to make them irrelevant.
Mischief, a submerged reef similar to Ayungin and roughly 20 miles to its west, makes for an instructive example. It used to belong to the Philippines, but in 1994 the Chinese took advantage of a lull in Filipino maritime patrols caused by a passing typhoon and rapidly erected a stilted structure that they then made clear they were not going to leave. Slowly they turned it into a military outpost, over the repeated protests of the Filipinos, and now it serves as a safe harbor for the Chinese ships that patrol Ayungin and other areas.
What China has done with Mischief, Scarborough and now with Ayungin is what the journalist Robert Haddick described, writing in Foreign Policy, as “salami slicing” or “the slow accumulation of actions, none of which is a casus belli, but which add up over time to a major strategic change.” Huang Jing, the director of the Center on Asia and Globalization at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in Singapore, noted that in all of these conflicts — Scarborough, Ayungin — China insists on sending its civilian maritime force, which is theoretically unarmed. This has a powerful double significance: first, that the Chinese don’t want to start a war, even though in many ways they are playing the aggressor; and second, that they view any matter in the South China Sea as an internal affair. As Huang put it: “What China is doing is putting both hands behind its back and using its big belly to push you out, to dare you to hit first. And this has been quite effective.”
In bringing their complaints to arbitration, the Philippines has used the only real lever it has: to try to occupy the moral high ground and focus international attention on the issue. In response, China has tried to isolate the Philippines — discouraging President Benigno S. Aquino III from attending the China-Asean Expo in Nanning last month and continuing to steer the Asean agenda away from a final agreement on a legally binding code of conduct in the South China Sea. (One former U.S. official told me, “So far, China has been able to split Asean the way you would split a cord of wood.”) China has stated that they view the overlapping claims as bilateral issues, to be negotiated between China and each individual claimant one at a time, a strategy that maximizes what China can extract from each party.
While an arbitration outcome unfavorable to the Chinese — which could be decided as early as March 2015 — would create some public-perception problems for them, China is unlikely to be deterred, in part because there is no enforcement mechanism. “Let’s be honest,” Stephanie Kleine-Ahlbrandt says, “China has essentially studied how the U.S. has conducted its hegemony, and they’re saying, ‘We have to respect some court case?’ They say that the United States blatantly violates international law when it’s in its interest. China sees this as what first-class powers do.” (Multiple requests for comment from the Chinese government went unanswered.)
The official U.S. position, articulated by Secretaries Clinton and Kerry, has been that the U.S. will not take sides in disputes over sovereignty. As the assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, Daniel R. Russel, told me, “Our primary interest is in maintaining peace, security and stability that allows for economic growth and avoids tension or conflict.” Basically, we’re staying out of it. But the U.S. has stepped up its joint operations with the Philippines, including a recent mock amphibious landing not far from Scarborough Shoal. There has also been talk of increasing U.S. troop rotations into some of its former bases.
“I think we want to find a way to restrain China and reassure the Philippines without getting ourselves into a shooting war,” James Steinberg, the former deputy secretary of state under Hillary Clinton, told me. “We have a broad interest in China behaving responsibly. But sovereignty over the Spratly Islands is not our dispute. We need to find a way to be engaged without being in the middle.” Kurt Campbell, a former assistant secretary of state with the Obama administration, put it more bluntly: “Maritime territorial disputes are the hardest problem, bar none, that diplomats are currently facing in Asia. On all of these issues, no country has any flexibility. I’ve never seen more white knuckles.”
According to Huang Jing: “Everyone in this region is playing a double game. Ten years ago, the United States was absolutely dominant in the region — economically, politically, militarily. People only had one yardstick to measure their national interest and their foreign policy, and the name of that yardstick was U.S.A. Now there are two yardsticks. On the political one, it’s still the U.S., but on the economic one, it is China.”
The United States does not have the unlimited leverage that it once did, and so for the time being it is allowing the Chinese to slice their salami all the way up onto the shallows of Ayungin.