Friday, June 24, 2011

Rules of Engagement in the South China Sea

Over the past 2 weeks I have been closely following the activities taking place in the South China Sea. It is worth noting that the tensions between China and the Philippines have advanced far enough that political leadership in the Philippines wants clarification regarding rules of engagement.

Lawmakers on Thursday urged the House of Representatives leadership to summon officials of the Department of National Defense (DND) so that they can brief Congress on the ongoing security situation in the West Philippine Sea.

The House also wants to find out the specific mission orders and rules of engagement issued to BRP Rajah Humabon and other maritime assets which are conducting sovereignty patrols in the disputed Spratly Group of Islands.

Davao City Rep. Karlo Alexei Nograles said the Chamber headed by Speaker Feliciano Belmonte Jr. can ask the DND and representatives of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), particularly the Philippine Navy (PN), to brief the House on the parameters of the country's assertion of its sovereignty over its territories in the West Philippine Sea.

This is very important, Nograles said, because while the Philippines is committed to protecting its sovereignty and its right to defend itself from foreign intrusion, "Congress needs to be apprised on what to expect under different possible scenarios."

"We should know how we are going to respond, especially in a worst case scenario because while it is true that although we have to protect our territories even if we are a small nation with a very ill-equipped Armed Forces, this act of sending BRP Rajah Humabon to conduct sovereignty patrols could be viewed as an act of brinkmanship," he said.

"A single act of hostility from either side could spark a shooting war and we definitely do not want that to happen," he added.
This comes after the topic of the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty between the US and Philippines was raised earlier this week when Hillary Clinton promised the United States stands with the Philippines, although I do believe there are still some questions as to what exactly that means.

The US is also looking to arm up the Philippines, which is obviously necessary given the near absence of any legitimate naval capability by the Philippines. China responded to Hillary Clinton's remarks unfavorably, as one would expect.

China has recently completed 2 naval exercises in the South China Sea - one large exercise involving forces of the South Sea Fleet and a smaller naval exercise with Vietnam. Tensions between China and Vietnam are just as strained as they are between China and the Philippines due to similar incursions in the South China Sea. Vietnam has a stronger military and coastal security force than the Philippines does though, so the dynamic between those nations is very different.

As schedules would have it, it is time for our annual naval exercise with Vietnam while CARAT moves to the Philippines. The presence of the US Navy in the region is likely to add more political rhetoric to the tensions. The US is always forward deployed in the Pacific though, so there really isn't anything new here to note. For those who are curious, the Essex and George Washington will be at sea more over the next few months, but again that isn't new either - the calendar just changed to summer meaning it is time for the summer patrols.

It is hard to imagine an all out shooting war breaking out in the context of all this tension, indeed there is no public evidence anyone involved wants to see that happen based on political comments. With that said, there is also no evidence anyone is ready to back down, and we are at the stage where rules of engagement for the possibility of a military engagement is being discussed at the highest levels of government. That suggests to me some kind of incident may be looming large over the horizon.

As I have watched this unfold, my guess is this is intentionally leading to an incident. As unlikely as it may sound to some, the United States is in a terrible political position with these events and our credibility in the Pacific may be heading for a serious challenge. China is dead serious about these territories. As I have been watching all of this unfold, I am starting to think China may be looking to test the strength of our mutual defense treaty with the Philippines by inciting a major, but isolated incident. China knows a one time incident will not be responded to in any meaningful way by the United States, and also knows they can leverage our inaction in support of the Philippines as part of their political influence throughout the rest of the region.

If you are looking for a quick review of events unfolding in the South China Sea, I recommend this recap by Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) over at The Hill. The map above can be used to reference where most of these activities are taking place relative to the Philippines. As you can see, these islands are nowhere near China, all of them 400-500+ miles away from China while being within the Philippines EEZ.

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