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Spratly Islands in the Spotlight

by John Brian Shannon | October 27, 2015

The Spratly Islands are a hodgepodge of islets that sometimes appear above sea level in the South China Sea

At high tide, only a few islets are visible above the waterline, while at low tide most of the islets are exposed. Which is concerning enough for ship Captains sailing in perfectly clear midday weather — but can be downright terrifying at night, or during a storm or typhoon with the ship being tossed around by waves as it is simultaneously pulled along by the incredibly powerful and deep currents in that waterway.

The Spratly’s are also located in the centre of a typhoon corridor, which means there are frequent distress calls during the annual storm season. Depending upon local weather conditions the islands can vanish under the waves by a few feet, or they can appear above the surface of the water.

South China Sea dispute October, 2015

South China Sea dispute October, 2015

Until now, the Spratly Island chain was merely a complex navigational challenge for ships to navigate around, especially at night or in inclement weather

Recently, China began a dredging/island reclamation project on one of the Spratly Islands to turn one or more of the islets into air bases, presumably to serve as a refueling station for their long range patrol or military aircraft, or possibly for civilian airliners in distress.

Military planes aircraft are notoriously thirsty aircraft — either because they are long range patrol aircraft of significant size and weight and therefore use a lot of fuel, or are lightweight, high-performance fighter aircraft which use even more fuel per hour. Having a nearby refuelling station/landing strip can lower the stress level of military pilots to put it mildly.

And for ships that have encountered rough weather or have had mechanical difficulties, the Spratly Islands are located perfectly should China decide to maintain a Chinese Coast Guard presence there. It is the logical place to deploy from in order to rescue passengers from ships in distress or aircraft crashed in the water.

Finally, in the case of combatting at-sea piracy and to conduct anti-terrorism inspection of suspect ships, the Spratly Islands are well-positioned to host the necessary aircraft, ships and anti-terror personnel.

IF that is what China is planning, they are doing a good deed for all of the shipping and aircraft that pass through that waterway and smart nations that regularly travel through the region might consider contributing funds or other assistance to that noble endeavor.

The fear has been raised that the Spratly airbases could be used as a ‘jumping-off point’ for attacks by China on Southeast Asian nations

Well yes. That could happen. But then again, a big piece of plasma could be ejected by the Sun and crash into Earth wiping out all life on the planet. Neither is very likely, yet it is theoretically possible that either (or both) could happen.

It just depends if you see the glass as half-full or half empty

If you see the United States and its partners as nations that are sliding from their historical high place in the world and are now feeling threatened by China’s incredible economic surge, then it’s understandable that the U.S. and its partners might base their decisions on fear.

If you don’t think the sky is falling, then the Spratly’s are a ‘tempest-in-a-teapot’ and that ships should continue to navigate as carefully around those islets as they’ve done for centuries.

If it were up to me

Were the decision up to me, or if we had a stronger UN body, the suggestion would be to use nuclear weapons for peaceful purposes — boring holes deep beneath the islands to safely place an appropriately sized bomb, in order to liquefy all of the rock 5 miles below the islands.

By deploying a number of tiny nuclear devices deep under the rock formations upon which those islands stand, the rock strata far below the islets could be liquefied, allowing the islets to sink deep below the surface — permanently removing those threats to shipping in the region.

This has been done before, and with zero radiation release into the air or water. It’s a completely enclosed detonation and like the molten magma deep under the Earth’s crust it would never come anywhere near the atmosphere or seawater.

One would hope that one islet would be spared for the purposes of building a massive emergency base that all Southeast Asian nations would “own a share of” and “feel comfortable enough with” to contribute aircraft, ships and personnel in order to maintain a high level of anti-piracy/anti-terrorism readiness, for rescue missions, and to carry forward-based and rapid assistance to future tsunami/earthquake victims throughout the region.

Of the choices available to us, which are the most appropriate?

  • Human beings could use our much vaunted technology to sink all of the Spratly Islands to a depth far below any ship hulls thereby removing a significant navigational hazard from the charts.
  • China could turn one of the islands into a joint rescue, anti-piracy, and anti-terrorism super-base, where  operations could operate at a high level and tsunami/earthquake aid could maintain a rapid-response level. (This could be done regardless of whether the other islets were sunk)
  • We could annoy and provoke China into a conflict over how far we allow that country to project its maritime power. That fight could escalate in a matter of minutes or days, and as both China and the U.S. are superpowers it’s possible that the conflict could spread far beyond the South China Sea.

From a purely human life and health standpoint, deaths due to shipping accidents worldwide are relatively rare, amounting to less than 8,000 people per year, while deaths due to terrorism total less than 15,000 per year, and military conflict between nations can range from small numbers of deaths up to (potentially) all life on the planet if a nuclear war between two superpowers is allowed to develop.

Therefore, it seems appropriate to resolve the situation using diplomacy. In that way, the present default slide towards conflict can be turned into a positive.

Win-Win or Lose-Lose: Our choice

Human beings will either be ‘up to the task’ of resolving the differences between nation states, or eventually there will be no life on the planet.

Let’s be civilized people and choose, Win-Win.

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