China owes the Philippines and other countries more than $177 billion in rent and damages for the South China Sea fiasco. The Permanent Court of Arbitration found on Tuesday that Mischief Reef is a low-water elevation and within Philippines’ exclusive economic zone. This gives the Philippines’ indisputable legal rights to the reef. But since 1995 when China occupied the reef, China irreparably harmed the reef’s delicate marine ecosystem by dredging and building an artificial island there, including a military garrison and air-strip. By my estimate, China owes the Philippines $12.4 billion in rent and damages for Mischief Reef alone. Considering other Chinese island-building, the country owes the Philippines and other claimant countries more than $177 billion. If China doesn’t want to pay, the Philippines can sue in the courts of the U.S. and other countries where China holds property.
Here is how to calculate what China owes. In 2015, the U.S. paid $1.97 million to the Philippines for 0.58 acres of coral reef destroyed when the USS Guardian went aground. That is a key reference point for environmental claims. Rent is even more costly. In 1988, the Philippines demanded $1.2 billion from the U.S. in rent for 6 military bases — $200 million each per year in 1988 dollars. The U.S. refused and got evicted.
By those metrics, the Philippines could sue China for about $4.6 billion of environmental damages to Mischief Reef in 2016 dollars, plus the requirement to pay $7.8 billion in rent. If China refuses to pay the combined $12.4 billion, the Philippines could seek redress in foreign civil courts to attach China’s offshore assets — of which there are plenty.
But China is liable for much more. China occupied six additional features in 1988 in the Spratley’s claimed by the Philippines, plus Scarborough Shoal in 2012.
The Philippines did not resist because they justifiably feared violence on the part of China. In 1988, Vietnam claims that China killed 64 Vietnamese soldiers who resisted on Johnson South Reef in the Spratley’s. China disputes the claim, but according to historian and BBC reporter Bill Hayton, “Strangely, a propaganda film released by the Chinese Navy in 2009 to celebrate the navy’s 60th anniversary gives more credence to the Vietnamese version. The video, now available on YouTube, was shot from one of the Chinese ships and shows the Vietnamese force standing knee deep in water as the tide rises over the reef. Huge spouts of water then erupt around the Vietnamese troops as the Chinese ships open fire. Within seconds the thin line of men has completely disappeared and 64 lie dead in the water: the machine guns are Chinese and the victims Vietnamese. The Chinese won the battle of Johnson Reef with a turkey shoot.”
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China occupied six features within Philippines’ claim in 1988: Hughes Reef, Johnson South Reef, Gaven Reef, Subi Reef, Fiery Cross Reef, and Cuarteron Reef. China has since dredged and built on all these reefs. Based on Philippines’ 1988 demand for rent from the U.S., each of these six features should yield (in 2016 dollars) about $10.3 billion for 29 years of use — a total of $62 billion.
China occupied Scarborough Shoal in 2012, but has not yet built there. There are no known environmental damages to the shoal, but rent for five years should be about $1.8 billion (inclusive of 2012 and 2016).
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