Nature abhors a vacuum . . .

PACIFIC_Royal.inddI’m thoroughly enjoying Simon Winchester’s Pacific – the Ocean of the Future (published in 2015 by William Collins, ISBN 978-0-00-755075-3), which I received for Christmas 2015. I already mentioned it in a recent post.

With a Prologue (The lonely sea and the sky), an author’s note (On carbon), and an epilogue (The call of the running tide), the chapters are ten essays on a range of topics about the Pacific Ocean, its geography, politics, and history since 1 January 1950 (Before Present):

  • Chapter 1: The great thermonuclear sea (all about the series of atomic bomb test at many locations in the Pacific in the 1950s)
  • Chapter 2: Mr Ibuka’s radio revolution (Sony and the transistor revolution)
  • Chapter 3: The ecstasies of wave riding (the rise of surfing culture, from Hawaii to California)
  • Chapter 4: A dire and dangerous irritation (North Korea)
  • Chapter 5: Farewell, all my friends and foes (the end of colonialism)
  • Chapter 6: Echoes of distant thunder (the Pacific and world weather)
  • Chapter 7: How goes the lucky country? (Australia)
  • Chapter 8: The fires in the deep (deep ocean exploration)
  • Chapter 9: A fragile and uncertain sea (climate change and other environmental challenges)
  • Chapter 10: Of masters and commanders (the emergence/resurgence of China)

It was Chapter 5 on the end of colonialism that fired the neurons in my brain, resurrecting several memories from the deep recesses of my mind. It began with an account of the Cunard ocean liner, RMS Queen Elizabeth and her demise after catching fire (in what appears to have been a deliberate act of sabotage) in Hong Kong harbor. The head of the company that had bought the QE, Tung Chee Hwa, became the first Chinese-appointed chief executive of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region after the Union Jack was lowered on 30 June 1997 and British rule came to an end.

The essay in Chapter 6 described how the Pacific Ocean influences weather systems right across the globe. Pacific Ocean weather is something in both its glory and at its most ferocious I came to appreciate and experience during my 19 years in the Philippines.

But it was the tenth essay, about the geopolitics of the South China Sea, that made me sit up and really take notice. Hardly a week goes by without some report in the media about the territorial claims to the islands of and expansion into the South China Sea by the People’s Republic of China. Absurdly (but not obviously from a Chinese perspective) China has laid claim to almost all the South China Sea, riding roughshod over the legitimate (and, it has to be said, the conflicting claims of Vietnam, Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, and Indonesia). But even a cursory glance at a map of the South China Sea shows just how outrageous China’s claims and actions are.


China has even taken to building outposts on a number of islands, reefs and atolls, obviously destined to become military bases with sophisticated defences and airfields to take the biggest planes.


Chinese claims
While China’s claims to the South China Sea stretch back to the end of the Second World War, it’s only in the past 25 years that this regional expansion has increased, and both the civil and military mobilized to achieve its aims. For the first time in 2006, evidence of China’s blue water navy aspirations and expanding naval capabilities was seen when a Chinese submarine sailed unnoticed within a few miles of a US carrier fleet. Over the years there have been a number of close encounters of the military kind. So far, both countries have managed to keep a lid on these confrontations escalating into a ‘shooting war’. But for how long?

Now, until I read Winchester’s account in Chapter 10, I had not put two and two together, even though I lived in the Philippines for almost two decades. Two events—one natural, one political—occurred in 1991, and subsequent analysis allows me to ask one of the important ‘What ifs’ of Southeast Asia history. As we approach the 25th anniversary of the Pinatubo eruption I’m just beginning to understand the inter-connectivity of the events of that year. Part of this will not make particularly comfortable reading for many Filipinos, I fear. Nevertheless it’s an interesting perspective on what events encouraged the Chinese to assert themselves as they have done, much to the chagrin of her neighbours. Not that China is concerned it seems, about their counter claims, or that much of the area they claim as sovereign territory is viewed as international waters or airspace. A UN international tribunal in The Hague, to which the Philippines had taken its case, ruled against China. But that will make no difference. China does not recognize the tribunal. Economic prowess and military might are what count.

The events of 1991
In 1991, Mt Pinatubo awoke from its slumber of many centuries, and erupted on 15 June in a climactic explosion, depositing ash over a huge area. This dire situation was further exacerbated because Typhoon Yunya (Diding in the Philippines) hit Luzon on precisely the same day. Within spitting distance of Pinatubo were located two of the US’s most important overseas military bases: Clark Field, nestling at the foot of the volcano near Angeles City, and Subic Bay, home to the US Seventh Fleet, and one of the most important naval facilities that the US had access to anywhere. As we approach the 25th anniversary of the Pinatubo eruption I’m just beginning to understand the inter-connectivity of different events of that year.

Mt Pinatubo (from Clark Air Base) erupting on 12 June 1991, three days before the climactic eruption that led to the abandonment of the airbase in November that year.

At Clark it became clear within a day or two of the eruption, and covered in feet of volcanic ash, that the airbase would have to be abandoned. Aircraft had been flown out beforehand and personnel successfully evacuated to Subic. In November 1991 the US Air Force closed Clark¹.

At the end of 1991 there was perhaps an even more event, political this time, that has perhaps contributed more to the present South China Sea situation than the Pinatubo eruption ever did. In an increasingly nationalistic Senate, the future of an American presence in the Philippines was being debated. The Senate rejected a treaty that would have extended use of Subic Bay because of concerns over the presence of nuclear weapons (which the US would not reveal). Finally at the end of December 1991, the then president Cory Aquino informed the US government that US forces would have to leave the Philippines by the end of 1992. The US Navy pulled out in November 1992.

And into the vacuum left by the US departure cleverly stepped the Chinese, sensing the opportunity to fulfill their long-standing regional geopolitical ambitions. The rest is history; the Chinese are now well and truly entrenched in the South China Sea, and will not be easily budged. There is, however, another interesting twist to the story. In January 2016, the Philippines Supreme Court approved the return of US troops to bases in the Philippines, as a counter to Chinese expansionism in the South China Sea. What goes around comes around?

What if?
What if Pinatubo had never blown her top on that fateful June day in 1991? What if the US had been more forthcoming about the status of nuclear weapons during the finely balanced base renewal negotiations in 1991? What if the Philippines Senate had not openly expressed its rejection of the treaty in a display of anti-colonialism? What if the US navy had never left?

Would the Chinese have been off the mark with such alacrity, developing its own blue water navy, and (with contempt, many would say) revealing its true regional hegemonic ambitions? Nature abhors a vacuum, as they say. The Chinese have been only too happy to fill the military vacuum.

Let us hope that the war of words being fought over the South China Sea never evolves into a ‘hot war’. Notwithstanding Chinese intransigence and, it has to be said, overt hostility at times, it may depend in some degree on who occupies the White House after next November’s presidential election in the US. The jingoistic foreign policy rhetoric of a couple of the Republican candidates does not give me much cause for optimism.

¹ In the intervening years, it should be noted, Clark has been refurbished and reopened as Clark International Airport. Were it closer to Manila, and connected with better transport links, Clark could well have become Manila’s principal airport, relieving congestion at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport, close-by Manila’s business district of Makati.

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