South China Sea Standoff
At Scarborough Shoal, Manila Expects the Unacceptable

The Philippine Defense Secretary has drawn a line in the sand at Scarborough Shoal, saying Manila anticipates but would not tolerate Chinese attempts to build an outpost there. AFP:

Manila expects China to try to build on a reef off the coast of the Philippines, the country’s defence secretary said Tuesday, adding this would be “unacceptable” in the flashpoint waterway. […]

“They encroached,” Lorenzana said of a 2012 confrontation that saw Philippine vessels displaced from the shoal. “They occupied three islands there [in the Spratlys] plus they are trying to get Scarborough. So to us that is unacceptable”.

“If we allow them, they will build. That’s very, very disturbing. Very much [more] disturbing than Fiery Cross because this is so close to us,” Lorenzana added, referring to one of the Philippine-claimed reefs China has built on. […]

He added that China tried to build on Scarborough last year but American warnings stopped them.

“The Americans, that’s their red line. Red line meaning you can’t do that there, so they [China] did not do it.”

Scarborough Shoal has long been a bone of contention between the Philippines and China, with the two sides unable to come to an understanding even after President Rodrigo Duterte’s pivot toward Beijing. Although China pulled back its vessels in October to allow Filippino fishermen access to its waters, Duterte later unilaterally proposed that the waterway be declared a marine sanctuary off-limits to fishing, which was not China’s preference.  With even a provisional agreement on fishing proving controversial, it is no surprise that the larger disputes over Scarborough’s sovereignty remain unresolved.

Given the strategic significance of Scarborough Shoal, the stakes are quite high. Analysts warn that a militarized Scarborough Shoal could be the final point in a “strategic triangle” allowing China to cement its control over the sea. A Chinese military outpost there could put Chinese troops within easy striking distance of U.S. troops stationed in the Philippines, while potentially allowing Beijing to block other navies’ access to the South China Sea. For all these reasons, as Lorenzana suggests, the militarization of Scarborough Shoal was a private red line for Obama, who reportedly warned Xi about making such moves.

Lorenzana’s latest comments, then, come as a signal to Washington as much as Beijing. For all of Duterte’s efforts to improve relations with China, the Philippines still wants Washington to back up this particular red line. Given the early tough talk from Team Trump on the South China Sea, they might get their wish.

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