[ANALYSIS] Scarborough Shoal and its threat to Philippine centers of gravity

Jose Antonio A. Custodio

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[ANALYSIS] Scarborough Shoal and its threat to Philippine centers of gravity
It is our economic assets, our commerce, and way of life that can now be threatened by the Chinese. Green Aura is a harbinger of things to come.

Unceasingly had drummed into them the utterance of The Times: “You are lions led by packasses.” 
– Francisque Sarcey, in Paris During the Siege, 1871

The harassment of the Liberian registered tanker the Green Aura by Chinese naval and coast guard elements off Scarborough Shoal has generated a huge amount of debate and discussion, especially with regard to the manner in which the Duterte administration attempted to sweep it under the rug. (READ: Maritime expert hits Panelo for downplaying China ship harassment

The man of the hour, Captain Manolo Ebora justified his decision to stay his course in words that have since then been juxtaposed with the defeatist and servile “walang magagawa” (can’t do anything) statement of Rodrigo Duterte against Chinese aggression. Captain Ebora, who is a Philippine Navy reservist has since received awards and commendations for his act of defiance against the Chinese. Ironically, Duterte administration-sanctioned online trolls, media hacks, and even officials have started a shameful and treasonous campaign to smear the reputation of Captain Ebora.

In his confrontation with a Chinese coast guard vessel off Scarborough, Captain Ebora said: “This is Scarborough Shoal. It’s not [Huangyan Dao]. We are just passing. May I know, is this a Chinese territory water? I think it’s not a Chinese [territorial] water.” 

Instead of using this as a rallying point to instill awareness of the extent of the Chinese threat to the country, Duterte administration officials made a mad scramble to downplay the incident. The following are the statements of administration officials that range from the weak to the bizarre. 

Presidential Spokesman Salvador Panelo:

In a way, it’s not our concern, because it’s not a Philippine vessel.

Furthermore, the spokesman doubted the intentions of the Filipino captain of the Liberian registered tanker based on what he said was his discussion with the National Security Adviser. Both the spokesman and the NSA are not mariners. 

Secretary of Foreign Affairs Teodoro Locsin Jr:

We stick our noses in and 400,000 Filipino mariners get embroiled in a maritime issue about which our only interest is the safety of the parts of the crew who just happen to be Filipino and were not harmed…Want the employment [of] 400,000 Pinoy mariners to hang in the balance of the games an idiot native media likes to play? Now that’s harming their livelihoods.

Secretary of National Defense Delfin Lorenzana:

It has been reported in certain news outlets that a commercial vessel with Filipino crew aboard, the Green Aura, was repeatedly challenged by Chinese Coast Guard vessels near Bajo de Masinloc on September 30, 2019. Since the Green Aura, a Liberian ship, was able to safely reach its intended port of destination unimpeded, we believe that what happened should not be blown out of proportion or sensationalized. An official report of this incident has been forwarded to the National Task Force on the West Philippine Sea (NTF-WPS) for their appropriate action. We, however, would like to reiterate our call for all countries to exercise prudence and respect freedom of navigation and passage in the WPS. Bajo de Masinloc is well within the Philippine EEZ, and the 2016 arbitral ruling declared that it is a common fishing area. The Chinese government must respect international maritime laws if it wants to earn the respect of the international community.

This then reveals a glaring lack of understanding of what the Chinese threat poses to the Philippines that is present and slowly building up at Scarborough Shoal. 

It is important that the Philippines has to condemn what the Chinese vessel did to the Green Aura at Scarborough Shoal. That shoal is ours and the Exclusive Economic Zone is also ours and China has no business being there. However we need to show where exactly the shoal. Its strategic importance is usually left out of the discussion. This enables the officials in the Duterte administration to engage in efforts to downplay any incident in the area. Ironic, since the secretary of national defense had stated in 2017 in relation to the Chinese presence in Scarborough Shoal that: 

That’s very, very disturbing. Very much (more) disturbing than Fiery Cross because this is so close to us.

Contrast that with his statement on Green Aura:

Since the Green Aura, a Liberian ship, was able to safely reach its intended port of destination unimpeded, we believe that what happened should not be blown out of proportion or sensationalized. (Author’s emphasis)

Scarborough Shoal is 120 miles away from Zambales and 150 miles away from the National Capital Region. Going by the 9-dash line or the 10- or 11-dash line that the Chinese have arbitrarily and outrageously drawn up to mark what they claim is their territory in the South China Sea and West Philippine Sea, this leaves the Philippines with only 12 nautical miles of territorial water and the rest beyond that is China’s. That is outrageous and unprecedented by international laws and standards. 

Scarborough Shoal allows the Chinese not just to enforce that illegal claim but also to threaten and coerce the Philippines in its major centers of gravity. Any general or admiral in the Philippine military worth the stars on his or her shoulders should know the definition of a center of gravity. It is simply defined as “a source of power that provides moral or physical strength, freedom of action, or will to act.”

Hence, what are the centers of gravity in the Philippines that will be affected by Scarborough Shoal? 

  • Our military command and control system, as the General Headquarters and Service Headquarters are grouped around the National Capital Region.
  • Our major military bases, such as major navy, army and air forces bases in the National Capital Region and elsewhere in Luzon.
  • Our maritime trade: the port of Manila alone accounts for approximately 20,000 ship visits a year, annual cargo shipments of almost 100,000,000 tons, more than a million passengers a year.
  • Our commercial air traffic consists of more than 50 aircraft movements per hour at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport and more than 40 million passengers a year. 
  • Our political centers – executive, legislative. and judiciary (yes, they actually have value) – are all located in Metro Manila. 
  • Most of our major urban centers are located at the National Capital Region and Central Luzon and Calabarzon, which have a combined population of a quarter of the country’s total population.

It is not just military assets that can be interdicted and harassed by the Chinese presence at Scarborough Shoal. More importantly, it is our economic assets, our commerce and way of life that can now be threatened by the Chinese. Green Aura is a harbinger of things to come. Scarborough’s other intent is to play a direct role to also ensure a malleable administration in Malacañang Palace. If bribery of Filipino politicians will not work, or if there are protests against Chinese influences in the Philippines, Scarborough Shoal will be classic gunboat diplomacy to keep the Filipinos in line and submissive through the threat of economic blockade. True enough, a single Chinese Coast Guard ship at Scarborough Shoal that did not scare off a Captain Ebora has instead managed to elicit submissive, weak, and even at times pro-Beijing treasonous statements from Filipino officials.   

Yet, there are many things that can be done by the Duterte administration, from mobilizing international support on diplomatic and economic areas to applying pressure on China for its misdeeds in the South China and West Philippine Seas, and conducting public awareness campaigns for Filipinos to support the government against China’s territorial ambitions. This can be a decisive factor in unifying the people.

Unfortunately, the Duterte administration has preferred to enable China’s territorial aggression and has even taken a step further to allow Beijing the ability to spread its influence in the Philippines through debts, influx of hundreds of thousands of Chinese nationals in inadequately-regulated enterprises, a do-nothing approach in the West Philippine Sea, and deliberate attempts to foment national disunity by discrediting those Filipinos (like Captain Manolo Ebora) who oppose Chinese expansionism.

In matters of national security, it appears that the policy makers and leadership in the Philippine national security sector and the Philippine military are more hell-bent on running after activists and local marginalized communists than in facing the real threat on the Philippine Republic posed by Chinese imperial ambitions. Even though there is widespread distrust of China from within the Philippine military who view it as the country’s number one external threat.  

It is not just that Duterte cannot do anything for the Philippines, it is that he and his administration are already doing quite a lot for China. Hence, even if it was the previous Aquino administration that committed the monumental blunder of losing Scarborough to Chinese occupation, it is still well within the mandate and responsibility of the Duterte administration to vigorously defend against and treat with utmost alarm the aggressive presence of the Chinese at Scarborough Shoal, especially since this is very near our sociopolitical, economic, and military centers of gravity. 

As a final point, Beijing must be so thoroughly pleased with itself that it does not even have to reward its ambassador to Manila for the great inroads that have been made by China into the Philippines. Filipino politicians and legislators, in a shameless act of subservience, personal self-interest, and perhaps even treason, did it themselves when they heaped awards and praises on the outgoing Chinese ambassador. – Rappler.com 

Jose Antonio Custodio is a security and defense consultant. He specializes in military history and has post-graduate studies in history from the University of the Philippines. He occasionally teaches history and political science in several universities in Metro Manila. 


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