Sunday, April 09, 2017

Reaching the Limit of Sucking Up to China

President Duterte's flirtation with China at the expense of relations with America reached their limits pretty fast.

The Philippines will build up defenses for their claims in the South China Sea:

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte said Thursday he has ordered the military to occupy and fortify all Philippine-held islands in the disputed South China Sea to assert the country's claims amid what he says is a race to control territory in the area.

"We tried to be friends with everybody but we have to maintain our jurisdiction now, at least the areas under our control," he said during a visit to a military camp in western Palawan province.

He specified 9 or 10 islands. And yes, China disregards international law despite a ruling against them on this issue. China will take what is not defended.

Which is why I don't know if this retreat from that order is wise:

The Philippines will upgrade existing facilities on its inhabited islands and reefs in the South China Sea and not occupy new territories, adhering to a 2002 informal code in the disputed waters, defense and military officials said on Friday.

Doesn't leaving islands unoccupied just give China the option of sending in forces when it is convenient? Why would an informal code stop China when an international court ruling hasn't?

Or is this just a means of avoiding telegraphing occupation?

I've argued the Philippines needs to stand on their ground:

China continues to build islands and structures in the South China Sea in order to bolster their illegal claims for the South China Sea. The Philippines had best respond by building permanent structures to bolster their own claims.

And this advice is good for the other claimants, too:

Anyone else that hopes that negotiations might settle their disputes with China (and each other) had best dig in on whatever they claim before China moves in and finalizes the negotiations at that point.

So far China has had a nearly clear run at taking islands. Having to fight for an island raises the potential cost to China and may deter the Chinese.

And small countries do have a chance of winning tiny wars if China doesn't want to risk disrupting trade and investments in China by escalating a fight to a level they can easily win.

UPDATE: Of course, China has just taken one step back after taking two steps forward at Scarborough Shoal.

China will take a couple more steps when they feel ready.