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South China Sea: China’s Plans for Scarborough Shoal; By Carlyle A. Thayer

C3S Paper No. 0052/2016

Courtesy: Thayer Consultancy Background Brief, April 13, 2016.

Q1. Do you expect China to carry out land reclamation at Scarborough Shoal as it has in the Spratlys, and if so to serve what purpose (another airstrip or just a radar station and a lighthouse)?

ANSWER: There are strong indications that China is going to act pre-emptively at Scarborough Shoal prior to the decision of the Arbitral Tribunal expected in early June. China is likely to build quickly a small permanent structure or structures and station military personnel on them. By shoring up its position on Scarborough Shoal China would present a fait accompli to the international community. The Philippines and the United States would be put in the position of having to accept China’s actions or take the risk of initiating some kind of robust physical response. China’s wants to derail international pressure on it to adhere to international law in light of the Arbitral Tribunal’s findings.

China will not carry out land reclamation on Scarborough Shoal because it is not an island that has lost soil through erosion by sea and wind. China is likely to convert the shoal into an artificial island and construct structures and small-scale facilities under the guise of providing public goods, such as safety of navigation. At a minimum China would put in communications equipment and possibly radar.

The Australian media has reported concerns by U.S. and Australian intelligence and analytical agencies, presumably Australia’s Defence Intelligence Organisation and the Office of National Assessments, that China is poised to take “decisive and provocative action.” These sources report that China is likely to dynamite Scarborough Shoal to build an artificial island to house military facilities or declare an Air Defence Identification Zone. The latter possibility is unlikely at this stage because it would be purely symbolic. China has no means to enforce it.

The Philippines had a lighthouse on Scarborough Shoal in the 1960s that disintegrated over time. Scarborough Shoal is not generally considered a part of the Spratlys islands proper.

2. To what extent do you think that would cross a red line for U.S. military commanders and why? How does its proximity to Subic Bay fit into that?

ANSWER: Militarization should be viewed as a spectrum of activities ranging from “giving a military character to a place” to “making preparations for war.” There is a grey area along this spectrum where certain facilities have a dual civil and military use. China initially would stress that the facilities on Scarborough Shoal are civilian facilities use its Coast Guard to enforce sovereignty in order to make a U.S. response problematic.

A red line would tend to be towards the end of the spectrum (making preparations for war). One red line would be China’s intimidation and coercion of the Philippines by its civilian maritime forces backed up by the People’s Liberation Army Navy.

If China militarized Scarborough Shoal it would be in a much better position to monitor the movements of the U.S. 7th Fleet using Subic Bay. China would also be able to monitor U.S. submarines through the deployment of aerial reconnaissance aircraft and anti-submarine warfare helicopters.

It is strongly rumoured that Kurt Campbell and Ambassador Fu Ying reached an understanding for the mutual withdrawal of Chinese and Filipino vessels from Scarborough Shoal in 2012. Both sides reportedly withdrew from Scarborough Shoal but the Chinese returned after authorities in Beijing learned of the deal and rejected it. The US has been equivocal about whether the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty covers islands and features claimed or acquired by the Philippines after that date.

China will brazen it out in the expectation that the U.S. will not be the first to use force.

3. Why does it make a difference that China only took control of Scarborough in 2012, whereas it’s artificial islands are all on features it already occupied?

ANSWER: Scarborough Shoal was invested – in the military sense of being besieged or surrounded – by China as a result of an unplanned encounter initially involving Chinese fishermen and a Filipino warship (a former US Coast Guard Hamilton-class cutter). Chinese maritime law enforcement ships intervened to prevent the arrest of the fishermen. Chinese propaganda went into over drive about the Philippines’ use of the “biggest warship in their navy.” What began as an interdiction action by the Chinese Coast Guard became a stand-off and then a permanent presence.

Given the timeline to construct seven artificial islands, it is unlikely Scarborough Shoal was included in China’s master plan.

4. How advantageous for China would it be to have a triangle of military outposts in the Spratlys, the Paracels and Scarborough Shoal?

ANSWER: If China constructed an airstrip on Scarborough Shoal, after converting it into an artificial island, China would have the basic infrastructure to prevent the Philippines from operating in the waters of the Spratly islands. China already is challenging Filipino military ships and aircraft.

If China placed long-range radar, fire control radar, surface-to-air missiles and antiship cruise missiles on its artificial islands it would place the U.S. Navy and other regional navies at risk in a crisis situation. China would have excellent maritime domain awareness and be able to respond to the intrusion of foreign military ships and aircraft. J-11 multirole air superiority fighters could take off from Woody Island.

[Carlyle A. Thayer is Emeritus Professor, The University of New South Wales at the Australian Defence Force Academy, Canberra. Email: All background briefs are posted on (search for Thayer)]

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