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Could A Lighthouse Have Prevented South China Sea's Latest Flashpoint?


Scarborough Shoal is little more than a bump in the South China Sea. China is eyeing it for an air base even though the shoal is also claimed by the Philippines, a U.S. ally. It's a volatile mix that might have been avoided, as Michael Sullivan reports from Manila.

MICHAEL SULLIVAN, BYLINE: It's 1995, and Jose Almonte has just watched Chinese ships occupy the disputed territory called Mischief Reef, about a 150 miles from the Philippines mainland. They put up a Chinese flag, an antenna and a couple of modest shacks, he says. And they insisted there was nothing to worry about.

JOSE ALMONTE: They told us it's for fishermen. But I said yeah, that's for fishermen. But fishermen in Chinese naval uniforms.

SULLIVAN: Almonte was the Philippines' national security adviser at the time. And he wasn't under any illusion the mischief at Mischief Reef was a one off. So he and his colleagues brainstormed about how they might check the Chinese advance.

ALMONTE: What can we do in terms of countering China? And the most that we thought we can do was to establish a lighthouse in Scarborough Shoal.

SULLIVAN: Yes, the same shoal that's the current flashpoint in the dispute between China, its neighbors and the U.S. amid reports China may be considering building an airstrip there too. But back then, it was just another uninhabited speck of land even closer to Manila than Mischief Reef. And putting a lighthouse there, Almonte and his colleagues reckoned, would help cement Manila's claim to the Shoal. So they built one.

ALMONTE: The lighthouse components were in fact finished, made here in the mainland and supposed to be installed in the Scarborough Shoal.

SULLIVAN: But that last bit never happened - for political reasons, Almonte says.

ALMONTE: I don't want to elaborate on that. But for want of a nail, the shoal was lost.

SULLIVAN: In his memoir though, Almonte suggests the plan was scuttled by a colleague hoping to be considered for the post of U.N. secretary-general who didn't want to antagonize China.

SULLIVAN: Had this lighthouse on Scarborough Shoal been constructed, do you think we would be talking about this right now?

JAY BATONGBACAL: Probably not.

SULLIVAN: That's Jay Batongbacal. He's the director of the Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea at the University of the Philippines.

BATONGBACAL: A lighthouse, which requires constant presence or at least regular presence for maintenance and upkeep, would ensure that the Philippines would be able to maintain basically administration of the shoal because it is clear evidence that you are on the shoal exercising sovereignty and jurisdiction over it.

SULLIVAN: Carlyle Thayer, emeritus professor at the Australian Defense Force Academy agrees and goes a step further.

CARLYLE THAYER: If the lighthouse had involved in any way members of the Philippines armed forces, then any incident against them - it's usually an armed attack - would have triggered consultations under the Mutual Defense Treaty with the U.S.

SULLIVAN: A treaty that still exists, despite the Philippines' decision in the early '90s to boot the U.S. from Clark airfield in the Subic Bay Naval Base. With China's growing assertiveness in the South China Sea, that decision is looking a little shortsighted too.

RICHARD HEYDARIAN: The sentiment among a lot of Filipinos is that - how we wish that the Americans did not leave us to begin with.

SULLIVAN: That's Richard Heydarian of De La Salle University in Manila.

HEYDARIAN: So this is the problem for the Philippines. It kicked out the Americans, but it didn't follow throw by developing its own defensive capability. So it left the field open for opportunistic powers like China to step in.

SULLIVAN: A new enhanced defense agreement with the U.S. will allow U.S. ships and planes to be deployed in the Philippines again on a limited basis, both countries sharing an interest in containing China's military expansion in the South China Sea. But it could be a case of bolting the barn door after the horse has left for want of a nail or two. For NPR News, I'm Michael Sullivan in Manila. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.