China Loses South China Sea Case in Tribunal

The Fatal Sea

The Guardian reports that “China has lost a key international legal case over strategic reefs and atolls that it claims would give it control over disputed waters of the South China Sea.” China has already said it will not recognize the ruling.


The judgment by an international tribunal in The Hague is overwhelmingly in favour of claims by the Philippines and will increase global diplomatic pressure on Beijing to scale back military expansion in the sensitive area. …

China reacted angrily to the verdict. Xinhua, the country’s official news agency, hit out at what it described as an “ill-founded” ruling that was “naturally null and void”.

China’s defence ministry said its troops would “unswervingly safeguard state sovereignty, security, maritime rights and interests,” according to state broadcaster CCTV.

The ruling will make grim reading for Beijing. None of the fiercely disputed Spratly Islands, the UN body found, were “capable of generating extended maritime zones … [and] having found that none of the features claimed by China was capable of generating an exclusive economic zone, the tribunal found that it could — without delimiting a boundary — declare that certain sea areas are within the exclusive economic zone of the Philippines, because those areas are not overlapped by any possible entitlement of China.”

China will probably make some symbolic gesture of defiance to convey it’s rejection of the tribunal’s decision and that will probably be the end of it — for now. But accidents have always been a major source of conflict. This is as good as a time as any to use material from the book I never finished, describing the further adventures of the fictional character Ramon Delgato in an accidental Sino-Philippine conflict. It is fiction but is broadly based upon on actual geography. It will serve as a broad introduction to the situation in the area. Without more ado, a draft from the unfinished book describing an accidental naval battle.

The entire time that the taxi crawled along in the traffic to the hotel the local radio station had been blaring stories of Chinese efforts to tow away a Philippine Navy hulk that had been left guarding the Ayungin shoals, internationally known as the Second Thomas Shoal. The ship symbolized everything that was insane about the the naval confrontation between the Philippines and China. The Sierra Madre was the rusting hulk of a World War 2 LST, grounded on an uninhabited rock 170 km west of Palawan.

From a distance the Sierra Madre looked like a crumbly slice of chocolate cake plopped onto the aquamarine sea. Her hull plates sagged inwardly on her framing, like tiles of mud in contrast to the clean distinctness of the blue sky and fleecy clouds. She looked like a giant floating turd. Even the buoyancy was illusory. No longer did she ride the heaving waves. Her bottom was hard aground on a reef and would never float again.

But no matter. The Sierra Madre flew the Philippine flag over the shoal. While she lived Manila, not Beijing, owned the reef. The derelict was occupied by a squad of Philippine Marines who when not entertaining visiting reporters, some from the New York Times spent their time surviving boredom, typhoons and privation on the wreck. The Chinese had been blockading it for years, their Coast Guard vessels harassing supply ships bringing food and relief units to the rusty wreck. From time to time actual physical threats were exchanged, but the newspapers had been reporting them so long that no one paid attention any more.

Did ships like people remember their youth? Ramon wondered as the taxi inched along on the congested street. The corroded derelict was once the USS Harnett County winner of one battle star in World War 2 and nine in Vietnam before she was transferred as US military assistance to the Philippines to finish out her days. “Ten battle stars,” Ramon thought to himself, “and who would have thought her biggest challenge was yet to come, as the Sierra Madre, hung up on a reef?”

His naval musings were interrupted by the taxi’s arrival at the hotel’s sweeping entryway. Over the driveway towered a 15 foot bronze model of a World War 2 Halifax bomber on a plinth, from which the hotel took its name. Ramon took the small backpack that was his only luggage out of the taxi, checked in at the front desk and accepted his key. Ramon’s $50 economy room was on the 38th floor.

The room seemed a lot less grand than shown in the brochure. Up close the corridors were narrow, the elevators cramped. The doors were plywood, the tables deal. The backboard of the bed was fabricated from some kind of laminate and the airconditioning had only been switched on moments before, probably from the front desk when he checked in. It took a full quarter of an hour for the air conditioner to beat back the hot mustiness of Manila.

But the hotel room was more than good enough for Ramon Delgato. Or as his wife would say, Ramon’s trouble was ‘everything was good enough’. “You enjoy squalor,” she told him once disapprovingly, “you have no standards”. In her view he was the victim of arrested development, never having outgrown his fondness for the low life. “That was OK when you were in the underground,” she said. “But you’re nearly an old man now,” she observed, “and cheap hotel rooms don’t become old men any more than do bling, toupees and white shoes.”

He put aside the thoughts of age and cheapness and busied himself setting up the prepaid pocket wi-fi device he bought at the airport. Once certain the wi-fi worked, Ramon decided on a nap to repair the fatigue of the flight, leaving the TV news channel turned down low. Ramon knew enough about naval situation to be worried and the snatches of reportage that filtered through the curtain of sleep joined the snippets he acquired writing an article on the actual chances of war in the South China Sea. He had concluded the biggest risk was an accidental exchange of fire because no one actually wanted to start a war.

The Chinese efforts to tow away the Sierra Madre were dangerous precisely because it put both sides in physical contact, a situation that could lead to an accident. Should the hulk come apart, or should Philippine Marines garrison resist things could spiral out control, which would put everyone in unfamiliar territory. Seventy years of general peace had made conflict an alien experience. And as insurance companies well knew once commonplace dangers became rare events, people lost the ability to estimate the risks. In poor countries, people kept flashlights and candles against commonplace outages. But in first world countries, where blackouts were almost unknown, few people kept emergency lighting around the house. And war had become so rare it was almost certain that nobody would be ready for it if it came.

As Ramon lay in his cheap hotel room on the Second Thomas Shoal, 105 miles to the southwest the PLA’s South Blade Special Forces — the Chinese equivalent of Navy Seals — had somehow wrapped a steel cable around a structural member of the Sierra Madre — before the Philippines Marines discovered it and responded with small arms. The South Blades went directly over the side into the water.

A Chinese Type 056 corvette assigned to support the towing operation fired its 76 mm cannon high as warning shots, more to psychologically suppress the defenders than cause actual casualties.

But now fate took a hand. The marines sheltering in the rusty interior of the LST requested reinforcement. It came in the shape of the Philippine Navy flagship, the BRP Gregorio del Pilar, an ex-US Coast Guard cutter which had been on its way to a naval exercise in Singapore very nearly past the Thomas Shoals. It only had to alter course a few points towards the reef to respond to the mayday.

The appearance of a warship on the radar of the Chinese warships transformed the tactical situation entirely. Faced with a real warship the Chinese frigates prepared for possible anti-surface action. The light was fading as the del Pilar neared the reef. Anxious to avoid an accidental encounter with Chinese vessels, the Filipino captain urged his radar operators to locate any other ships in the vicinity and give them wide berth until the situation could be clarified. But because its normal AN/SPS-73 surface search radar was not working, the captain ordered Mk 92 Guided Missile Fire Control System to use its built-in search capability to do the job.

Using the Mk 92 in search mode was not threatening, but the Chinese Type 056 electronic warfare officer (EWO) made a crucial mistake. His database identified the del Pilar’s radar signal as originating from the a fire control system, without understanding that it was being used in a non-hostile search mode.

“Captain,” he said, “a Mk 92 fire control radar from the surface contact is on us.”

“Are you sure its a Mk 92?”

“Yes,” the operator said. Our software library positively identifies it.” He tapped the display with finger. “Look, it says Mk 92 right here.”

Interpreting the radar scan as a hostile act the Chinese captain fired two C-803 antiship missiles at the Gregorio del Pilar. One went high and the approached at wave height. At a precalculated time the high missile dived and the sea-skimmer made its final approach. The cutter never knew what hit it. Both missiles impacted high on the superstructure, wiping out the entire bridge crew and setting the ship afire. But the lower hull was unaffected and the ship plowed on like a Viking funeral ship until it grounded with a squeal of tortured metal 500 meters away from the Philippine Marines. The marines could see the del Pilar flaming incandescently and reported it over their command net to the operations center at the Philippine Navy. The duty officer, having lost contact with the flagship, asked the Air Force to scramble two of its Marchetti S211 light attack aircraft from Basa Air Force base to ascertain the situation.

The S211s came off strip alert and closed at maximum speed; they were ground attack aircraft with almost no naval capability. But the sailors on the Type 056 corvette did not know that. All the corvette radar operators knew was there were two more bogeys inbound from the direction of Luzon. Coming as they did after the engagement with the del Pilar the Chinese sailors saw the new contacts as a threat.

From their altitude the two Filipino pilots saw a ship on fire at an estimated 30 nautical miles. Unsure of the situation both pilots dove for the deck, both to get a closer look at the flaming ship and reduce their vulnerability to possible hostile fire. To the Chinese sailors the dive looked potentially hostile, but their HQ-10 system, copies of the Soviet SA-10 Grumble anti-aircraft missiles, refused to lock on to the S211s as these descended below the radar horizon.

The corvette captain sent a combat air patrol request to the Chinese aircraft carrier Liaoning cruising some 50 miles west of the shoals. As China’s first aircraft carrier, it was often described as the pride of the Chinese fleet. The truth was more prosaic. The ship was purchased as a hulk in the Ukraine after it had been discarded by Russia and towed in an epic voyage around the world until it reached China’s Dalian docks. There it was refurbished and readied for sea, but despite the repairs it was intended to be a training carrier, a floating school for Chinese naval aviation. It was never intended to engage for a US supercarrier.

The Liaoning battle group had come along to practice providing support for the corvettes. Now the corvettes were asking for help and the training ship forcibly transitioned to a combat mode. The flight crew moved 2 Shenyang J-15 interceptors to the takeoff line behind the ski-jump bow.

The carrier had a provisional air wing of 12 J-15 fighter aircraft. Six were raised to the deck; four were staggered behind the jet blast deflectors while two were rolled into position behind the ski ramp. All had been loaded R-73 air to air missiles. But in their confusion the armorers had forgotten to safe the missiles properly. In training the omission of safeties had no consequences, but with warshots things would be different. And now the Liaoning’s crew was about to re-learn what the USN had so painfully been taught in six decades of carrier operations.

In 1967 the USS Forrestal suffered a devastating accident when an electrical anomaly fired off a Zuni rocket on an airplane being readied on the deck. The rocket streaked across the deck setting a park of armed aircraft ablaze. Unfortunately the airplanes carried an older type of bomb which unlike the newer models, were filled with traditional explosives susceptible to detonation when exposed to heat or shock. In five and a half minutes, nine bombs detonated on supercarrier’s flight deck. Only superior damage control training and the armored deck of the Forrestal saved the ship. From then on the US Navy ruthlessly eliminated all sensitive munitions from its inventory.

But the Russians had never been learned the same harsh lesson and continued to use sensitive explosive fillers. In 2000 this led to the loss of the giant Russian missile submarine Kursk. A practice torpedo leaked fuel and started a blaze in the torpedo room. The heat set off seven live warheads with such force the blast registered on seismographs as far as Alaska. But unlike the Americans, the poorer Russians never altered their practice of using volatile warheads.

The Chinese, having inherited the Russian weapons systems, were now doomed to the same fate. A transient electrical spike which ran through the J-15 airframe surged through one of the R-73 missiles. Because safing pin had not interrupted the circuit the voltage jumped the gap and ignited a missile in the four reserve J-15s. It hit the fighter ahead of it and all four fighters disintegrated in a blast of fuel and munitions which punched a hole in the Liaoning’s flight deck. A river of burning jet fuel poured through the hole into the hangar deck below.

The 2 Philippine S211’s skimming over the dying del Pilar saw a new fireball flare up on the western horizon. Attracted by this new spectacle they raced at wavetop height towards this phenomenon to investigate. This brought them over the anti-air screen of the Chinese carrier. The escorting Type 052D destroyers surprised the Marchetti S.211s with their HQ-10s, blowing both out of the sky.

But had the Filipino pilots lived five minutes longer they would have witnessed an extraordinary sight. The burning fighters and helicopters in the Liaoning’s hangar set off the bombs and rockets stored there. The escorting Chinese destroyers watched in horror as the great ship, still moving at over 25 knots, seemed to vomit a tornado of fire from amidships. A sound like a string of giant Chinese firecrackers rent the night as munitions were hurled blazing like roman candles into the sky.

Then the bombs stored on the hangar deck cooked off as on the Kursk. Boom, boom, boom, boom. Pieces of incandescent steel deck were thrown for miles. Still the deadly volcano of flame erupted. Boom. Boom. Boom. Somehow the fire crept down the weapons elevator to the carrier’s main magazine where hundreds of bombs were stored. A blinding flash lit the sky almost to the horizon to be succeeded almost instantly by total darkness. But when the Chinese destroyer’s surface search radar beams played over the spot where 67,000 ton warship had been there was nothing at all but eddying sea.

The Liaoning had disappeared. Twenty five hundred Chinese sailors and hundreds of officers had been turned to fragments in an instant. The shocked escort group of the Chinese battlegroup sailed pointlessly around an empty center. The senior surviving officer quickly flashed the news to the South Seas Fleet and struggled to put together an after-action report.

Wishing to remain as objective as possible, the escort commander listed out events as they were logged. Since the S211s had been logged before the Liaoning disintegrated the narrative unintentionally conveyed the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy: ‘since the carrier’s conflagration followed the arrival of the jets, then the carrier’s fire must have been caused by the jets.’

The dispatch was forwarded to the Central Military Committee and the Standing Committee of the Politburo was convened within the hour. These seven men occupied the apex of Chinese power. All were fairly young by the standards of recent Chinese leadership. Each wore two hats, the first and most important of which was a leading position in the Communist Party. The other role was a senior government official.

The general secretary, Hu Kequiang was also the president of China as well as the commander in chief of its armed forces. And so it was with the rest. Each represented a vast bureaucratic fiefdom, cutting across regional, economic and organizational lines. They were veritable princes

The senior Chinese leadership realized they were facing a catastrophe without parallel since the Korean War. Already the international news media was buzzing with rumors, probably leaked by the Pentagon, that a major Chinese warship had been sunk in the South China.

A flash CNN broadcast was piped into the Standing Committee’s meeting room. US officials were quoted as saying that a naval clash had occurred between the Philippines and China. Already the British tabloids, always prepared to mock other nationalities were bannering the headlines: “A Chink In the Armor”.

The damage to Chinese prestige had been done. As British online tabloids gloated the fury in the Standing Committee meeting room knew no bounds. China had been humiliated before the world. A fourth rate country’s fifth rate navy had somehow sunk the biggest ship in the Chinese navy with no survivors. Tomorrow the Politburo would have to explain to the Chinese people how nearly 2,600 of the People’s Republic’s sailors had been sent to Davy Jones’ locker by a contemptible foe.

The General Secretary spoke for the rest. “Do these monkeys, this nation of domestic helpers and reality show contestants think they can trifle with China? We gave no orders to sink any ships. They fired first! We even responded with fire over their heads. Then they illuminate our corvette with a fire control radar, which everyone knows is a hostile act! Then they send attack jets to make a sneak divebombing attack on a training warship without even a declaration of war. Just who do they think they are?”

The rest of the Standing Committee pounded their fists on the table. Their blood was up, for they themselves had instructed the Navy to avoid a direct confrontation.

“We have been treacherously attacked.”

The General Secretary turned to the chief of the general staff. “What options do we have? I want to put some major hurt on them, something that will teach them a lesson.”

“What about the American reaction?” the chief of the general staff asked. “I must know how far I can go without risking war with America.”

“You leave that to us,” the General Secretary replied. “We are the politicians. You are the Sword of the Party. The Party will ensure that whatever tensions result with the United States will be contained.”


Looking back on the chapter I wrote more than a year ago, a few things remain broadly true despite the fact that it’s fiction. First. No country will rationally want to start a war in the South China Sea. However one could start by accident and this is the chief danger. Second, the formerly stabilizing presence of the United States is greatly diminished. This increases the space for miscalculation.
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