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Scarborough Incident


On June 28, 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, was assassinated in Sarajevo by a group of Bosnian Serbs.  The assassination, which became known as the “Sarajevo Incident,” set in motion a series of events.  As Austria-Hungary confronted Serbia over the assassination, other European countries aligned with one side or the other.  Germany sided with Austria-Hungary while Russia backed up Serbia.

One month after the assassination, the Austro-Hungarian Empire declared war on Serbia. Four days later, Germany declared war on Russia.  A few days later, Britain and France declared war on Germany.  In less than 40 days, the “Sarajevo Incident” escalated into a “great war” involving Europe’s great powers.  But it became a “world war” when the United States entered the war on the side of Britain and France.
By the time the “Great War to End All Wars” — as “World War I” was originally called – was over, more than 20 countries were involved.  During the four-year war, total casualties were 37 million including 8.5 million killed.

*Scarborough Shoal

Almost a century after the “Sarajevo Incident,” an incident is happening on the other side of the world that could potentially trigger another conflict among nations.  It’s in an uninhabited group of islands and reefs called Scarborough Shoal in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea) about 124 nautical miles west of the province of Zambales.  It’s claimed by the Philippines, China, and Taiwan.
Scarborough Shoal is a triangle-shaped chain of islands and reefs with a circumference of 34 miles and an area of 58 square miles.  It has a lagoon with an area of 50 square miles and depth of about 50 feet.  Many of the reefs are just below water at high tide.  The islands and reefs vary in height from 1.5 to 9.8 feet at low tide.   

*Chinese incursion

On April 8, 2012,  a Philippine Navy vessel observed eight Chinese fishing vessels anchored inside the lagoon while it was patrolling the area.  The cutter BRP Gregorio del Pilar was immediately deployed that day. Two days later, the Del Pilar sent a boarding team to inspect the fishing boats.  They found illegally collected corrals, giant clams, and live sharks inside the boats.  But before the team could arrest the fishermen, two Chinese surveillance ships moved into positions between the Del Pilar and the fishing boats.  A standoff ensued.

The Philippine government protested the Chinese incursion into its territory and presented a proposal to submit the Scarborough Shoal territorial dispute to international arbitration.  China rejected the proposal and instead dispatched her most advanced fishing patrol vessel, the Yuzheng 310, to the West Philippine Sea to protect Chinese fishermen.

The English-language China Daily quoted a Chinese analyst as saying, “Beijing’s decision to send more patrol ships is a necessary and justified step to show strength.”  The analyst added, “The move also sends the message to Manila that Beijing does not make concessions after China has shown patience and sincerity to avert the situation from deteriorating.”  

Evidently, China is not going to give up her claim over the entire South China Sea (West Philippine Sea), peacefully or otherwise.  A few years ago, China declared the entire South China Sea as one of her “core national interests,” which means that it is a non-negotiable territory like Tibet.

*False nationalism

Last April 14, a Manila newspaper headlined: “Left urges Aquino to hang tough vs China.”  The report said, “Left-leaning legislators urged President Benigno Aquino III to take a tough stand against China, but cautioned him against bringing into the picture “a much bigger bully”—the United States.  The militant lawmakers also proposed a congressional investigation into China’s latest incursion on Philippine territory.” One leftist legislator remarked, “Philippine territorial waters and the 200-mile exclusive economic zones belong to the Filipino people and no foreign country, be it China or the United States, should be allowed to use and exploit it for their economic, military or hegemonic interests.”

Calling the United States a “much bigger bully” manifests the shortsightedness – and narrow-mindedness — of the self-proclaimed “nationalist” legislators.  Another leftist legislator said that the Aquino administration should not seek U.S. diplomatic or military intervention but should tap the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) and the United Nations for help in diplomatic talks with China.

But it was Department of National Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin who put the issue in perspective.  He reportedly said, “When the U.S. bases (were still operating in Subic, Zambales and Clark Field, Pampanga), all of our maritime areas were free from intrusions as U.S. forces helped us patrol those areas.” He added that the country’s intrusion problem grew when the U.S. closed down its bases in the above-mentioned areas as a result of the Philippine Senate’s refusal to extend the lease of the American bases in the country in 1991.  “Our lack of equipment and capability made it easy for (some of) our neighbors to place markers on our territories, claiming it for their own,” he said.

*What’s at stake?

In my article, “What if China attacked the Spratlys?” (July 13, 2011), I wrote: “By just looking at the two countries’ military forces, there is no way the Philippines could survive a Chinese attack.  The Philippine Navy has one World War II-vintage frigate and an Air Force that consists mainly of helicopters and no jet fighters.  In a matter of days the entire Spratly archipelago could be in the possession of China — without firing a single shot!
“The only thing that is deterring China – momentarily — from attacking the Spratlys is the US-Philippine Mutual Defense Treaty, on the presumption that the US would come to the aid of the Philippines if the latter invoked the Mutual Defense Treaty.  But that is a big ‘IF’ because President Barack Obama would have difficulty in convincing Congress and the American people to go to war in the South China Sea while the US is still embroiled in wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya… unless her national interests and security are threatened.” (Note: Today, Afghanistan is the only war the U.S. is fighting)

In my opinion, the only time that the U.S. would intervene is when her national interests are threatened.  And for as long as China doesn’t block the shipping lanes in the South China Sea or prevent any country from exploring for oil or natural gas in the South China Sea, the U.S. would not intervene in any territorial dispute between China and the Philippines over Scarborough Shoal or the Spratlys.  Who cares who owns these little islands as long as the waters around them are open to exploration… or exploitation?

However, if China attacked the uncontested Philippine territory covered by the U.S.-Philippine Mutual Defense Treaty, then the U.S. might be obligated to intervene and defend the Philippines.  But China wouldn’t do that knowing full well what the consequence would be in invading the Philippines.

The question is: Is China going to risk going to war by firing the first shot over the “Scarborough Incident,” occupy the Scarborough Shoal and the Spratly archipelago, and block maritime shipping lanes in the South China Sea? If she did, would it draw the other world powers into the conflict just like what the “Sarajevo Incident” did 98 years ago?  And just like Sarajevo, it might be worth fighting for what is at stake in the Scarborough Shoal.

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