The Philippines continues to stand, if not alone, without much true international support as China pushes its aggressive claim to the South China Sea almost into Manila Bay. President Benigno S. Aquino III dared to compare China's sea grab to the Nazis' march into the Sudetenland, instrumental in setting off World War II. The world yawned.
Now China threatens armed force to stop two Philippine vessels -- small civilian boats -- from resupplying food to a small garrison of eight men stationed on Second Thomas, a tiny shoal near the Philippines' Palawan Island. Outgunned, the Philippines are resorting to an airlift, while the Chinese accuse the Filipinos of "infringing China's territorial sovereignty."
China's Hainan Island is about 1,000 miles away. Second Thomas is 105 nautical miles from Palawan, well within the Philippines' accepted 200-mile exclusive economic zone, or EEZ.
Second Thomas is only the latest hotspot in China's mapping of its infamous "nine-dash line," staking questionable claims to islands and seabeds not only from the Philippines, but also Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei.
The Chinese have a name for their strategy in the South China Sea: Cabbage.
Major General Zhang Zhaozhong of the People's Liberation Army has described his method of surrounding the small shoals and islands with layers of ships and boats -- impenetrable, indigestible layers of cabbage.
The U.S. has declined to take sides in the South China Sea disputes over sovereignty, but lately has stiffened its criticism of Chinese tactics. The new assistant secretary of state for East Asia and the Pacific, Danny Russel, was outspoken in recent testimony to Congress, and China shouted back.
What next? When the Philippines refused to move a sunken ship from Second Thomas, an irate Chinese spokesman in Beijing, Hong Lei of the Foreign Ministry, said in effect: "Prepare for consequences."
The popular Philippine President Aquino, known as Noynoy, remains firm. Comparing the Chinese aggression to pre-World War II Czechoslovakia, which was dismembered piecemeal, Aquino asks: "At what point do you say enough is enough?"
Aquino is disliked by the Chinese, who preferred a predecessor, Gloria Arroyo. Aquino is from a strong and distinguished political family. His mother Corazon Aquino was president; his father Senator Benigno (Nonoy) Aquino Jr., was jailed, then assassinated on the airport tarmac when returning in 1983.
China is now so intent on its pursuit of Second Thomas shoal that, when it decided to search for the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, it met delays because so much seapower was focused on the Philippines.
Second Thomas Shoal is called Ayungin by the Philippines, Ren'ai Reef by the Chinese.
Whatever the name, it spells trouble as the Philippines stand up for their historic boundaries and China demands the entire South China Sea. Not to be outnamed, Philippines officials now routinely call the waters the West Philippine Sea.
The South China Sea is but one area of Asia where China continues to flex its muscles, all the time denying any aggressive intent. In the East China Sea, Chinese warships regularly enter the waters of Japan's Senkaku Islands, which the U.S. agrees belong to Japan. Last fall, China surprised with its declaration of a broad Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) covering the Senkakus.
The U.S. immediately sent bombers through the zone without complying. China has sent troops across a de facto border into India. Vietnam, like the Philippines, responds that islands in the Paracels and Spratly chains, also claimed by China, are entirely within Vietnam's territory.
The Vietnamese are tough. They fought a war when China tried to take land.
The astute U.S. Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, puts Chinese actions in perspective: Manifest destiny.
"They've been quite aggressive about asserting what they believe is their manifest destiny."
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