Is China moving to attack the Philippines?

Alec Almazan

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Recent developments over the past week suggest that the dispute between the Philippines and China over the Scarborough Shoal has reached a dangerous phase

Alec AlmazanRecent developments over the past week suggest that the dispute between the Philippines and China over the Scarborough Shoal has reached a dangerous phase as signs point to Chinese preparations for a military strike.

Late last week, Internet reports indicated that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Guangzhou Military Area Command and the Navy’s South China Sea Fleet had ordered troops to the second highest level of combat readiness. The PLA maintains 4 levels of war preparedness with the top level indicating full readiness. The Guangzhou Military Area Command and the South China Sea Fleet area of responsibility covers the South China Sea.

While denied by the PLA, this has been belied by the increasingly tough and hawkish tone adopted by China’s military and Communist party-owned newspapers against the Philippines.

On May 10, the official English language China Daily warned that “the Philippines should stop being a troublemaker and drop its ridiculous claim. Otherwise they will learn to their cost how serious we are about our land and sea.”

Another article written by Zhou Erquan, an associate professor at the College of the Air Force Command published in China Economy called on the government to attack the Philippines “otherwise they will not awaken.”

China experts have noted that historically China has always issued clear warnings before undertaking military action. This was the case before Chinese troops crossed the Yalu river in 1950 during the Korean War and when China fought a border war with Vietnam in 1979.

Even more ominous, a recent report by the Taipei Times indicated that an amphibious landing task force consisting of five of China’s most powerful warships had deployed to the Philippine Sea.

This task force has been identified by Taiwan’s Ministry of Defense as belonging to the South China Sea Fleet and consisting of the Type 052B multirole missile destroyers Guangzhou and Wuhan and the Type 054A missile frigates Yulin and Chaohu. The flotilla also includes the PLA Navy’s largest active warship, the 20,000-ton Kunlun Shan. A landing platform dock (LPD) vessel, the Kunlun Shan, can carry a reinforced battalion of 800 troops, 20 amphibious armored vehicles, 4 hovercraft and two attack helicopters.

Type O54A Guided Missile Frigate Chaohu.

Japan Self-Defense Forces first spotted the naval group 650 nautical miles southwest of Okinawa on Sunday after they had crossed the Strait of Miyako. The vessels then entered the Philippine Sea where they conducted amphibious landing exercises and helicopter training missions halfway between Taiwan and the main Philippine island of Luzon.

Although positioned in international waters the task force can deploy at a moment’s notice to Scarborough Shoal which is only two day’s hard sailing away.

Interestingly enough, China had ordered its fishing fleet to stay away from the South China Sea including the Scarborough Shoal ostensibly as a measure to conserve fish resources in the area. Some analysts, see the move, however, as a sign that China wants the area cleared of Chinese civilian vessels in the event it launches naval offensive operations.

Type 052B Guangzhou.  A multi-role missile destroyer, it is one of China's most advanced warships  with an area air defense capability.

The US, however, appears to be aware of Chinese intentions and deployed the nuclear-powered attack submarine, USS North Carolina, to its former naval base at Subic Bay. Virtually undetectable when submerged and bristling with an array of cruise and anti-ship missiles, the deployment of the submarine is meant to send a strong message to China that the US is prepared to defend the Philippines in case of attack.

The deployment of the USS North Carolina appears to be just the tip of the US military spear, however. “The interesting question, in this regard, is not so much about the USS North Carolina, per se, but about any other US submarines and assets that are not visible, but may be lurking in the oceans, flying the skies, or otherwise might be available in the event the situation were to deteriorate,” noted Dean Cheng, research fellow on Chinese political and security affairs for the Washington-based think tank, Heritage Foundation.

China’s intensified sabre rattling comes at a time when the Chinese leadership is engaged in an internal succession struggle. China watchers noted that China’s military muscle flexing is being resorted to as the ruling Communist Party is keen to show that it is capable of defending any threats to the country’s territory ahead of the once-in-a-decade leadership change later this year.

Senior Politburo members jockeying for top positions have also been eager to shore up their patriotic credentials with the politically powerful PLA. A war would also give Chinese President Hu Jintao reason to postpone the leadership handover. This would give him much needed breathing space to address the political scandal and high level in-fighting caused by the sacking of the once popular and powerful Chongqing Party boss, Bo Xilai. –

Alec Almazan is a Southeast Asia maritime analyst at the London-based Lloyd’s List Intelligence Unit and a former American Society of Newspaper Editors (ASNE) fellow at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University.

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