There is no lack of media attention in China and the Philippines over the continuing dispute in the Scarborough Shoals. One would think that that CCP would try toning down the rhetoric, but it seems that the leadership is willing to let nationalistic bombast have free reign to distract from the hardliner faction’s recent debacles in the Chan Guangcheng incident and the fall of Bo Xilai. I am far from the only person who seems to think that this is a bad idea. Sensationalism may sell newspapers, but it is not a recipe for good policy.
This week the question seems to be what would happen if this media-inflamed posturing turned hot? Clearly someone would have to lose his or her head to allow such a thing. The Philippine Navy has long been starved of adequate equipment. The ships it does have are best suited to coast guard duties, and are laughably inadequate to face the PLAN. The Philippine’s small jet fighter fleet was retired in 2005, which further confirms the utter lack of any military power projection capability from the Philippines. While there are plans underway to change this capability shortcoming, for now it means that escalation from the PN is virtually unthinkable. That leaves the PLAN. Fortunately, the USN Pacific Fleet is strong and in a position to dissuade rash action, which supports the maintenance of peace and stability in the region. However, the Chinese media is not restricted by such considerations – it is free to sensationalize and stoke nationalist sentiments until the CCP applies the brakes, which it seems disinclined to do. Thus there is an additional element adding uncertainty to a tense situation. Is it enough to cause something everyone will regret?
The answer is almost certainly not, but even having to ask is a negative development. If a shooting war started by the PLAN broke out, it would probably be over very quickly; a PN ship quickly sunk with negotiations to follow. The tyranny of distance would minimize that chances of US military involvement during the time between an attack and the problem being turned over to the diplomatic and mediation community. However, the result would likely hurt China far more than the Philippines. Regional and international isolation would increase for China, as would regional distrust of Chinese intentions. The PN might lose an old ship of little value, but would gain considerable sympathy for standing up to the Chinese Goliath, particularly in the US. Domestic support for the CCP would increase for a time, but China would be hurt in the long run. Rationally, there is no reason for a shot to be fired during the showing-the-flag posturing over Scarborough Shoal. For everyone’s sake, let’s hope it stays that way.