Friday, February 05, 2016

Mamasapano: the Philippines' Benghazi

What's it mean for the pivot when a US-directed operation in the Philippines leads to the greatest loss of life in the history of special forces?


On January 25, 2015, 44 members of the 84th and 55th Companies of the Philippine National Police Special Action Force or SAF died in an engagement with Muslim insurgents near Mamasapano on the island of Mindanao.

Perhaps there have been worse days for special forces, but I can’t bring any to mind.  The bloodbath is recognized as a tactical and political fiasco, a focus of popular anger and dismay, and a source of considerable political embarrassment for President Aquino.  Its anniversary was marked with fresh hearings on the disaster in the Philippine Senate.  It’s the Philippines’ Benghazi scandal.

Like Benghazi, Mamasapano also reveals some interesting new things about expansive US security operations overseas...things that are getting covered up and swept aside in a rush to make political hay out of the disaster.

The short story is that the SAF ventured into a stronghold of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, an insurgency seeking self-determination for the Muslim population of Mindanao, to apprehend a Malaysian miscreant, one Marwan, wanted for making the bombs for the 2001 Bali attacks that claimed 200 lives.  Marwan was killed in the operation but an SAF force was attacked during the withdrawal and suffered tremendous casualties before it could be extracted.

Long story is that the SAF troopers were pinned down in a cornfield for 10 hours—which must have felt like a thousand eternities—getting slaughtered by MILF snipers.  Only one member of the 55th Company survived.  While this massacre dragged on, three SAF companies supporting the operation stayed in their backstop roles instead of advancing to cover the withdrawal.  Command bickered about providing supporting artillery fire and sending in evac helicopters.  In the aftermath, it transpired that the military—Armed Forces of the Philippines aka AFP—was not able to provide effective support because they were not involved in the planning of the raid.  The Minister of the Interior and the Minister of Defense were totally flummoxed because they had no prior knowledge of the operation.  President Aquino had personally greenlighted the operation—Oplan Exodus—and passed the order to the SAF commander, Gutelio Napenas, through the former Director-General of the Philippine National Police Alan Purisima.  Former, because at the time of the operation Padremas had been suspended from the force for corruption, leaving President Aquino pretty far out on a limb, chain of command wise.  

By a suspicious coincidence, President Aquino was lingering in the nearby town of Zamboanga the day the operation went down, well positioned to share in the expected triumph of the neutralization of Marwan, an obsession of the United States who had a US$5 million bounty on his head.

In parallel with Benghazi, there is even a “stand down” narrative.

It is plausibly alleged that President Aquino, instead of ordering the AFP to waste the perimeter with artillery fire & send in the cavalry by helicopter for evacuation, tried to defuse the situation by contacting the MILF through mediators and begging them for hours to back off.  The Philippine government itself released a timeline documenting joint attempts with the MILF leadership to effect a ceasefire.  Apparently the message only got through to the local MILF commanders at 4:00 pm, because a brownout the night before had prevented them from charging their cellphones.

The MILF, you see, is in negotiations with the government in Manila concerning a law, the Bangsamoro Basic Law or BBL, that would grant Mindanao considerable autonomy and there’s some kind of truce in place.  Apparently sending the SAF into Mamasapano unannounced to pick up Marwan (who was sheltering with another group, not the MILF) was a violation of this truce, and perhaps it was felt that killing clutches of MILF fighters during an extraction would sink the Mindanao peace process once and for all. 

As it stands, the BBL is dead in the water anyway, thanks to public outrage at the MILF for massacring the 44 SAF troopers.

The fact that President Aquino still has his job after this mega-fracaso is a tribute to something, I suppose.  Perhaps a tribute to term limits.  President Aquino leaves office for good in early 2016 and will perhaps can look forward to relentless pursuit by his adversaries and the aggrieved families of the victims once he has lost the protection of his office.  For the time being, the designated fall guy is the SAF commander, Getulio Napenas.

Napenas, defending himself from accusations of incompetence, overconfidence, and loose-cannon behavior, had an interesting defense: that he was working with the United States.

Asked if the operation was solely a Philippine effort, Napenas replied that the US, through its Joint Special Operations Task Force Philippines based in Zamboanga City, provided real time intelligence support, training and equipment during the preparations and, during the execution, humanitarian and medical support and “investigation,” referring to the handover of Marwan’s finger to the Federal Bureau of Investigation for DNA confirmation.

Napenas also confirmed that the units involved in the operation were trained by a combination of US military and JSOTF members.

When Enrile asked whether the CIA participated in Exodus, Napenas said the name of the agency was “never mentioned” but added that because intelligence was involved, it was “likely” that personnel from the spy agency were also involved.

And there’s this:

US military officials were present the whole time at the tactical command post in Shariff Aguak in Maguindanao, while a “tall, blond, blue-eyed Caucasian” was seen among the slain SAF men.

There were also reports that a US drone from a Zamboanga flew overhead for a week before the operation.

The PNP review determined that six Americans were involved in the operation.

According to the initial “draft” Senate report from March 2015:

“One of six Americans involved in the Mamasapano assault ordered the Philippine Army's 6th Infantry Division commander, Major General Edmundo Pangilinan, to fire artillery, but Pangilinan refused and reportedly told the American: “Do not dictate to me what to do. I am the commander here!”

“The testimonies of various resource persons, particularly during the executive hearings, provide indications that the US had significant participation in Oplan Exodus,” the executive summary of the Senate report read.
 
 According to various media reports, Napenas identified one of the US advisors as either “Al Latz” or “Al Katz”.  There has been no stampede by Western media outlets to try to track down this interesting individual.  

The US was compelled to confirm that it advised the operation, but insists its only direct involvement—documented by an AFP photo—was casualty evacuation.
  
US military involvement in Philippine operations is a dicey constitutional, legal, diplomatic, and political question.  Officially, the United States military is restricted to non-combat roles in the Philippines, although plenty of wriggle room does seem to exist.  US military personnel can accompany Philippine forces during operations and defend themselves if fired upon.  Direct operational participation by JSOC in dozens of AFP operations is, at least on the left, openly alleged.

The hand-in-glove ally and pivot partner of the US, Alberto Del Rosario’s Department of Foreign Affairs chipped in with its defense:

In a report submitted to the Senate, the Philippines' Department of Foreign Affairs said that based on their discussions with US authorities, they were able to ascertain that Oplan Exodus was 100-percent Filipino planned and implemented.

“The DFA emphasized that 'the only constitutionally restricted activity in Philippine cooperation with the US under existing agreements is that, they (US) may not and have not, in the case of Mamasapano either, engage in combat operations and which non-participation (of the Americans) in combat was affirmed by PDIR NapeƱas,” the report said.

Ah-huh.

On one level, the Philippines looks like another example where the United States cultivates a loyal and dependable local kinetic asset to enable lethal operations in nations where the US doesn’t have the legal right to operate freely but feels regular forces are too corrupt, compromised, or incompetent to properly execute US objectives.  And there’s often hints that US “advisors” tiptoe over the non-combat line at crucial junctures to get things done.  I wrote about it here in the context of the US drug war in Mexico and Colombia. 

There is another twist, one that comes courtesy of a 2012 AP report on a previous attempt to get Marwan, one of many, many tries, that time involving the Philippine army, not the PNP/SAF, to kill Marwan using GPS-guided smart bombs delivered by turboprop (the same weapon used to assassinate FARC commander Raul Reyes):

(Smart bombs) offer a less manpower-intensive way to combat Abu Sayyaf at a time when both the Philippines and the US militaries want to focus resources on tensions with China in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea). They also dovetail with a change in recent years from massive offensives to surgical, intelligence-driven strikes that target holdouts of the battered Abu Sayyaf.

So also consider the Mamasapano massacre as blowback from a US/Philippine decision to transition from a military to political/security force joint approach in Mindanao, using a different group of actors—actors that fatally lacked their own coordinated artillery and airlift.   

But using the Philippine National Police is a bit hinky legally as well as tactically, since the conventional understanding is that the US and Philippines have military to military cooperation, with the US in advisory/training/non-combat role…to the Armed Forces of the Philippines.  It should be noted that JSOC in the Philippines—headquartered at Zamboanga, indeed at the airfield where President Aquino lingered on the day of the assault—frames its activities in terms of cooperation with AFP.

JSOC is not formally partnered with the PNP or SAF, which are civilian forces under the Ministry of Interior. Nevertheless, General Napenas directly identified JSOC Zamboanga as his working partner for the assault.  And the idea that US milsec was expanding its cooperation with the Philippines to encompass domestic law enforcement did not sit well with Philippine Senate Minority Leader Juan Ponce Enrile.

Enrile said he asked about the VFA because the pact “deals only with the military” and “does not cover the enforcement of the criminal laws of the Philippines.”

“This is something that the government must explain,” why it allowed “a police matter to include US participation,” he added.

The US Ambassador to the Philippines, Philip Goldberg, speaking on February 3 of this year, obligingly lectured the Philippines on what the laws and agreements they had concluded actually meant.  

“I also think people should look and be very careful when they talk about the various legal and other issues involved because they’re complicated, they’re complex, they’re not simple,” he added.

The US ambassador cited as an example the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) between the Philippines and the US that shows what cooperation can do for both countries.

“My understanding, if you read the [VFA], it is a government to government agreement, it’s not between the militaries [of the US and the Philippines], that deals with treatment and conduct of our forces in each other countries and that’s what the essence of what the DFA [Department of Foreign Affairs] is all about, it doesn’t deal with the agenda of what our cooperation will be,” Goldberg said.

And:

“I think it is irresponsible to discuss those things publicly. They should be discussed for accountability sake in closed sessions of our Congresses, not just here, but in the United States,” Goldberg said.
“We have a process for doing that in the United States. I have testified as a U.S. official in private session, in secure areas in the United States Congress. And those are the kinds of things that we should do to both assure accountability and release publicly those areas of policy, and of law, but not of specifics that can only reveal the kind of cooperation that we have that help people whom with very much like to know that information.”

Beyond the obvious “shut up and stop laundering your dirty laundry in public” element, Goldberg is engaging in some ad hoc lawyering to declare that the Visiting Forces Agreement—which governs treatment of US military/contractor activities inside the Philippines—is not mil to mil, it’s gov to gov.  So the US can work with Philippine government bureaus other than the military—like the PNP, and in areas other than external defense—like domestic security/counterterrorism.  

Let us pause to consider Ambassador Goldberg.

He was expelled from Bolivia in 2008 on suspicion of regime change shenanigans against its president, Evo Morales.  More significantly, previously he had served as Assistant Secretary of State for Intelligence and Research, which, Wikipedia tells us, was originally the Research and Analysis Branch of the Office of Strategic Services.

I, for one, was unaware that the US State Department had its own spook program or, for that matter, it had provided a haven to Wild Bill Donovan’s OSS when the CIA won that particular turf war.   It’s now a big operation: 20+ offices, at least 300 staffers, and an undoubtedly hefty but classified budget.  Anyway, Goldberg ran this thing.  Now he’s in the Philippines.

Clearly, there are some ambassadorial postings that can’t be filled by a well-heeled campaign contributor tasked with throwing expensive parties and groping the spouses of the local businessfolk.  Shaky spots like Syria (Robert Ford) and Ukraine (Geoffrey Pyatt) call for more of the “proconsul from the dark side” skill set to armtwist proxies and local political assets, deal with paramilitaries, manage US military and covert programs that stray across the bounds of legality, and deal with the execution and blowback from all sorts of wet work.  The Philippines appears to be one of those places.  So Goldberg’s there to handle the spook stuff.

And there’s a lot to be done in the Philippines.  Americans tend to slot the Philippines into the plucky People Power democracy/bulwark against Chicom aggression division. But the Philippines is also a rickety, insurgency-beset state that the US wants to see secured and stabilized as a vital base and locked in politically as a reliable pro-American ally for US power projection in East Asia.

The Philippines has been in and out of the US counterinsurgency meatgrinder more than Anbar Province, and that’s saying a lot.  It started with the Aguinaldo insurgency against the US conquest in 1899-1902, paralleled with the Moro insurgency (fascinating little-know historical fact: the US government prevailed upon the Ottoman Empire to order Mindanao’s Sultan of Sulu to stand down from the Aguinaldo insurgency and he did!; but then the US doublecrossed the Moro and took them on the next year in one of the most brutal campaigns in US history, one that lasted more than a decade); then there was guerrilla warfare against the Japanese; then the Huk rebellion in the 1950s; now we’re back to the Moro on Mindanao.

Today, the U.S. is backing a peace process with the MILF, exercising its honest broker muscle to try to bring peace to Mindanao after an insurgency that has cost 100,000+ lives in the post World War II period alone.  This involves US outreach to Malaysia to support the peace process, and even features US envoys clandestinely playing pattycake with the MILF.  Though a priority for President Aquino, the MILF initiative provokes understandable ambivalence in nationalist quarters in Manila (and suspicion concerning the leverage Malaysia might have over President Aquino by funneling in money to support reconciliation) since Muslim Malaysia seems a better fit for Mindanao than Roman Catholic Philippines, and it’s thought that business opportunities and political influence in an autonomous, peaceful Mindanao might naturally flow toward Malaysia instead of Manila. 

With this context, sending the SAF to barge into MILF territory unannounced and dooming the BBL peace process does not seem to have been some of Ambassador Goldberg’s best work.  I am willing to speculate that one of the drivers of this process was the $5 million dollar bounty on Marwan offered under the State Department’s “Rewards for Justice” program, despite allegations that Marwan was a semi-retired second banana and perhaps not even a real bomb maker.

Apparently, as the AP report cited above indicates, Marwan’s outfit, Abu Sayyaf, was already considered to be flat on its ass in 2012 and not an operational threat.  Both US and Philippine militaries want to focus their planning and budgeting on the bigger (and bigger money) and conventionally manageable China threat.  Maybe that’s why the Marwan got turned over to the junior varsity: the PNP and the SAF.

The RFJ program is already blamed for skewing Philippine operations toward single-minded pursuit of rich bounties on “HVIs” (High Value Individuals) at the expense of more systematic counterterrorism ops.  The SAF itself had contributed an additional 7 million pesos (about US$150,000) to the Marwan bounty pot, perhaps because US RFJ awards aren’t that easy to get and a locally-controlled bounty was perhaps seen as the best way to shake loose an informant.  It looks like Marwan was way up on the PNP’s agenda.  Oplan Exodus was the SAF’s 10th attempt to nail him.  Yes, tenth.  And that doesn’t count the AFP bombing raid.

Was apprehension of Marwan pursued as a pretext/opportunity for nurturing sustained cooperation between the US and the PNP, perhaps with a nice payday/reward at the end?  Was the assumption that the MILF would stand back and let the operation go on rather than endanger the peace process?  The AFP, no friend of the SAF in this matter, released a photo of a relaxed Commander Napenas in civilian clothes smiling in his command center at the height of the crisis, with mocking captions sneering that he expected the operation to be a “walk in the park.” 

Deeper in tinfoil hat territory, was the MILF expecting to shop Marwan at the appropriate time & decided to make the Philippine government pay an exceptionally bloody price for snatching him from under their noses?  After all, the MILF would seem to have had ample opportunity to ascertain the true identity of the SAF intruders on January 25; but they kept picking them off for hours until almost no one survived.  But the SAF did emerge with Marwan’s finger, which was forwarded to the FBI for DNA ID and possibly—kaching!—reward money.  (The PNP, by the way, has subsequently declared it will not receive any reward money from the Marwan operation).

It’s not going to be easy to find out the backstory.  The Mamasapano massacre appears to be seen mainly as a stick with which to beat President Aquino—and his anointed successor, Interior Minister Roxas—in the runup to the presidential elections.  Senator Grace Poe, a well-regarded presidential candidate if she works out some legal difficulties, opened up a fresh set of hearings.  But she neglected to table the commission report in the Senate prior to adjournment, which means it will be archived instead of released.  Senator Enrile, the 92 year old lion of the Senate (and occasional prisoner based on ongoing corruption charges put forth by the Aquino administration) and fierce partisan of his own presidential candidate, current Vice President Jejomar Binay, promised bombshells at the hearing—but satisfied himself with collecting testimony that President Aquino might bear legal responsibility for the disaster.

Enrile did flay Ambassador Goldberg for telling the Philippines to stop blabbing about US mission creep, while hinting at the corrupting influence of the big rewards the US State Department throws around.  He criticized the US for extending its security cooperation beyond the military to the PNP, but also implied the US would be welcome to dispatch its own soldiers to pursue targets in the Philippines:

“What is sensitive about the police operation? I ask the great ambassador of the US. (Why is) he saying enemies of the state may also be watching? We have the host country for him. Why does he talk as if this is the US?” Enrile said in a weekly forum at the Senate.

The minority leader, who called for the reopening of the Mamasapano investigation, said the US should first answer why they put up a US$5-million reward for the capture of Malaysian terrorist Zulkifli Bin Hir also known as “Marwan"…

“And why did they not use their elite troops instead of training these officers to become pawns and to be dead meats, to capture dead or alive a quarry of the US?” he said.

And the whole political exercise only took place just after the US-Philippine relationship had navigated a risky shoal.  On January 12, 2016, the Philippine Supreme Court by a 10-4 vote confirmed that the “Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement” with the United States (signed on US behalf by Ambassador Goldberg) did not require any messy ratification by the Philippine Senate.  The EDCA dodges some pretty categorical language in the Philippine constitution prohibiting permanent foreign military bases by permitting the Philippine government to give to the US military the right to operate free of charge “Agreed Locations” that can host “rotated” i.e. not permanent US military personnel and stock them with various logistical goodies but not nuclear weapons.  Pretty much the only shoe left to drop is a formal return to Subic Bay, which already sees dozens of port calls from the US Navy each year.  And I expect that may happen soon enough.

Apparently there was no interest, at least among Philippine elites, in exploring the awkward question of what happens when a bollixed US-advised military operations leads to a massacre of 44 Philippine security personnel, and thereby raising doubts about the merits of the EDCA. 

And also zero public convo about any shortcomings of American attention, planning, and advice, or what they might imply for Filipino lives and interests as America's best and brightest a.k.a. the Sith Lords of the Pivot prepare to lead the Philippines into a prolonged struggle with the People's Republic of China.  Taking into account the US role in Mamasapano and the fact that as a result the Mindanao peace process is on indefinite hiatus, one could argue that friendly fire from the US pivot to Asia is damaging Philippine interests in ways the PRC can only dream of.
 
It's not just that US intel, advising, and support pervaded the Mamasapano fiasco.  Marwan was a US target with a US bounty on his head.  Judging from the circumstances surrounding the order to conduct the operation, given by President Aquino without the knowledge of his Cabinet and outside the normal chain of command, it looks like he was obliging Ambassador Goldberg in setting up a risky, compartmentalized op.  As compensation, it seems there was the promise he would be basking in some personal political glory at the airport in Zamboanga when Marwan was brought in.

Instead, all Aquino got was Marwan's finger and 44 body bags holding the remains of his own troopers.  He may spend the rest of his life battling the consequences, legal and otherwise, for that decision. And his successors will have to deal with the fact that the US expects and demands its own direct channel into Malacanang Palace as the price of the alliance.


It appears that after a twenty five-year hiatus, the US has successfully re-embedded itself in the Philippines: not only basing rights but deep penetration into the Philippine security, civilian, and political spheres, as well as military.






Saturday, January 23, 2016

Good News, World! You Can Stop Worrying About the South China Sea!


There has been a concerted campaign to depict the South China Sea as an indispensable artery for commercial shipping and, therefore, a justifiable object of US attention and meddling.
This flagship of this effort is invoking the “$5 trillion dollars” worth of goods that pass through the SCS each year.  Reuters, in particular, is addicted to this formula.
Here’s seven Reuters news stories within the last month containing the $5 trillion figure:
What interests me is that these seven articles reflect the work of six reporters and seven editors (seven to six! Glad to see Reuters has a handle on the key ratios!) in five bureaus and they all include the same stock phrase.  How’s that work?  Does headquarters issue a ukaz that all articles about the South China Sea must include the magic $5 trillion phrase?  Does the copyediting program flag every reference to the South China Sea omitting the figure?  Or did the reportorial hive mind linking Beijing, Manila, Hanoi, Hong Kong, and Sydney spontaneously and unanimously decided that “$5 trillion” is an indispensable accessory for South China Sea reporting?
I guess it’s understandable.  A more accurate characterization of the South China Sea as “a useful but not indispensable waterway for world shipping whose commercial importance, when properly exaggerated, provides a pretext for the United States to meddle in Southeast Asian affairs at the PRC’s expense” is excessively verbose and fails to convey a sense of urgency. 


The kicker, of course, is that the lion's share of the $5 trillion is China trade, and most of the balance passes through the South China Sea by choice and not by necessity.

In other words, the only major power with a vital strategic interest in Freedom of Navigation in the South China Sea is the People’s Republic of China.  And the powers actually interested in impeding Freedom of Navigation down there are...pretty much everybody else, led by the United States.

Obviously, words fail me.
Instead, let’s look at a map. 
Here’s the map not to look at.  The oft-reproduced and abused US Department of Energy deranged tentacled monster hydrocarbon liver fluke writhing in the South China Sea map:


Instead, let’s look at  Marine Traffic, a most interesting website which offers dynamic real time ship information and some useful historical data free of charge, and provides an idea of the actual shipping patterns in the region.
 
If you select the “density map” option and zoom in, you get this view of the busiest shipping routes (green lines) and busiest ports (red blobs) in and around the South China Sea:

Note that marine traffic in the South China Sea does a few things.  First of all, much of it goes, unsurprisingly, to the Peoples Republic of China and Hong Kong.  Second, except when friendship-building volleyball games in the middle of the SCS are on the agenda, Vietnam, Indonesia, Taiwan, and the Philippines are largely served by coast-hugging routes outside the PRC’s dreaded Nine-Dash-Line. 
Third, the rest of the traffic that transits the SCS pretty much on a straight line is headed for Japan and South Korea.  This would seem to support the perception that Japan and South Korea, our precious allies, need protection against threats to their supply of hydrocarbon-based joy juice, their economies, indeed their national security and ways of life emanating from the overbearing PRC presence on the South China Sea lifeline.
Not quite.
The strategic insignificance of the South China Sea to Japan and the Republic of Korea has been well known since the 1990s, when "energy security" became an explicit preoccupation of Japanese planners.
 Here is an insightful passage from a book by Euan Graham, Japan's Sea Lane Security: A Matter of Life and Death?, published in 2005.
The cost to Japan of a 12-month closure of the South China Sea, diverting oil tankers via the Lombok Strait and east of the Philippines, has been estimated at $200 million.  A Japanese estimate puts the cost as basically the same to that imposed by a closure of the Malacca Strait, requiring 15 additional tankers to be added to the route, generating an extra $88 million in shipping costs.  This is roughly corroborated by the reported findings of a joint study conducted by the JDA and the Indonesian authorities in the late 1980s, which put the number of extra tankers required to divert around the South China Sea via Lombok and east of the Philippines at 18.
...The volume of oil shipped to Japan from the Middle East is evenly split between Lombok and the Straits of Malacca...
Here’s a nice map showing the Lombok route, also mentioning the only difference with Malacca—two more days in sailing time over twenty days for the straight shot through the South China Sea.  Also note, as this graphic does, that the biggest biggest crude carriers, 300,000 DWT and up, can only take the Lombok route.
 

What does two extra days on the water mean?  Per Graham,
...Based on an oil import bill of $35 billion in 1997, [a cost of $88 million for diverting through Lombok] accounts for 0.3% of the total. 
To update these figures, the oil/tanker market has gone pretty gonzo recently, as everyone is aware.  Crude prices have gone down, while tanker rates are currently upupup as importers stampede buy cheap strategic reserves and, on occasion, hold the tankers for temporary storage instead of releasing them back into the wild.  Most recent shipping figure I could find was about $2.50/barrel from the Gulf to Japan.
Let's assume $30/barrel crude plus $3/barrel shipping costs.  Japan imports about 2 billion barrels per year.  That's $6 billion dollars.  And we assume the Lombok route adds 10% or $0.30/barrel to the shipping cost.  That's another $600 million dollars against $60 billion in total crude costs.  1%.  By a funny coincidence, $600 million is also about 1% of the annual Japanese defense budget.  Japan's GDP: $4 trillion dollars.
So is Japan going to light off World War III to keep the purportedly vital SCS SLOC open and save 1% on its oil bill?
Here's one fellow who doesn't think so:
CSD [Collective Self Defense] will not allow minesweeping ops in SCS/Malacca Strait as unlike Hormuz there are alternative routes.
That's a statement that notorious appeaser, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, made in the Diet, as reported on Corey Wallace's Twitter feed.
Republic of Korea: imports less than 1 billion barrels per annum.  Cost of the Lombok detour: maybe $270 million.
Bottom line, everybody prefers to use Malacca/South China Sea to get from the Persian Gulf to Japan and South Korea.  It’s the straightest, it’s the cheapest, there’s Singapore, and, in fact, shipowners looked at the economics and decided to dial back the construction of “postMalaccamax VLCCs” (Very Large Crude Carriers) so they’d always have the option of going through the Malacca Strait and South China Sea. 
But if that route goes blooey, they can always go via Lombok and the Makassar Sea.  Just a little bit more expensive.
So, the South China Sea is not a critical sea lane for our primary North Asian allies Japan and the Republic of Korea.
What about the threat to the Antipodes?  Core ally Australia?  If the PRC shut down the South China Sea, what would that do to Australian exports (other than to China, naturally)?
From Euan Graham’s volume quoted above:
Iron ore and coke shipments from Australia account for most of the cargo moved through the Lombok Strait...Lombok remains the principal route for bulk carriers sailing from Western Australia to Japan.
They use Lombok already! 
As to the South China Sea factor, Sam Bateman, a retired Royal Australian Navy commodore who now think-tanks in Singapore, debunked a dubious piece of numerology by Bonnie Glaser:
Bonnie Glaser has recently claimed that approximately 60 per cent of Australia’s seaborne trade passes through the South China Sea…
When measured by value, the figure of 60% of our seaborne trade passing through the South China Sea is way off the mark. Based on the latest data for Australia’s overseas trade, it mightn’t even be half that—and about three-quarters of it would be trade to and from China. Thus the notion of a threat to our seaborne trade from China is rather a non-sequitur.
Doing the math…25% of 30%...that’s 7.5% of Australia’s total seaborne trade by value through the South China Sea isn’t going to the PRC.  Back of the envelope, that’s A$40 billion, about half of which is back and forth with Singapore, which could be end-arounded by entering the Malacca Strait from the west and avoiding the South China Sea completely.  So maybe A$ 20 billion theoretically at risk in the unlikely event that the PRC decided to close the SCS completely to Australian shipping.  By contrast, Australian two way trade with the PRC: A$152 billion.
If you are wondering why there is a “spirited debate” as to whether confronting the PRC, the biggest customer for Australian ore and real estate, in the South China Sea serves Australia’s national interest, I think you have your answer.
Euan Graham, now Director of the Lowy Institute’s International Security Program, recently appeared on Australian television to remark that "geography doesn't change".  No kidding.
It's worth watching his appearance and his careful parsing of the South China Sea issue.
Notice he does not advance the canard that the South China Sea is a vital waterway for Australian commerce under threat from the PRC.  It’s more about Australia doing its best to act as a willing, nay eager, ally of the United States in Asia, or as Graham puts it paying “the alliance premium”.  And that “international law” thing.  And free movement of naval forces.
It should be clear by now that the South China Sea as a commercial artery matters a heck of a lot more to…China, unsurprisingly, than it does to Japan, South Korea, Australia, and the United States.
Here’s the funny thing.  The South China Sea is becoming less and less important to the PRC as well, as it constructs alternate networks of ports, pipelines, and energy assets.
The idea that the PRC will ever wriggle free of the maritime chokehold is anathema to the US Navy, which has staked its reputation, claims to a central geostrategic role, and budget demands on the idea that the US Navy’s threat to the PRC’s seaborne energy imports is the decisive factor that will keep the Commies in their place.  America’s interest in d*cking with the PRC in the South China Sea predates any Xi Jinping-related arrogance, expansionism, and island-building and indeed predates the appearance of any PRC Navy worthy of consideration.  It can be traced to the Office of Net Assessment’s 2004 report prepared via Booz, Hamilton for Donald Rumsfeld, Energy Futures in Asia. 
As I don’t think that report has been declassified, interested readers can check out this 2010 paper from the US Naval War College titled, “Your Pitiful Pipeline Plans Will Never Succeed, Silly Chinese!  Learn the Will of the Mighty US Navy and Tremble!” (actual title, China’s Oil Security Pipe Dream, not so far off the mark).
Indeed, Middle Eastern oil, oil that at the very least leaves the Middle East by ship, is probably going to be a big deal in China for decades.  But the PRC is trying to do something about it  in reckless disregard of the friendly and disinterested advice of the (Motto: Share and Be Nice!) USNWC.
Again, it helps to look a map.  The Belt and Road initiative is creating a lot of new channels to move energy and goods in and out of the PRC that don’t rely on the South China Sea.
While you’re at it, find the Andaman Sea.  It’s between Burma and India, to the west of the South China Sea and Malacca Strait.  The PRC has already built a terminal at Maday in Burma’s Rakhine State and twinned oil and gas pipelines to Kunming in China to, as The Hindu put it, “bypass the Malacca trap’.  

Those little red men, by the way?  Burma Army battalions.  Security of the pipeline is a big deal for the PRC, something that it is prepared to ensure even if it means blackmailing the Burmese government with the threat of unrest in the border areas, as Aung San Suu Kyi apparently already understands.
And for container shipment, the PRC apparently plans to jog the highspeed railway it’s building to Bangkok over to a new deep sea port down the coast from Maday in Burma at Dawei (instead of pursuing the perennial Thai pipe dream of the Kra Canal across the isthmus separating the Andaman Sea from the Gulf of Thailand).
Also check out Gwadar.  The PRC has made a commitment to invest tens of billions in the Pakistani insurrectionary, logistical, and geopolitical nightmare that is the Boondoggle in Balochistan with the prospect of sending oil and gas over the Himalayas to give provide another option for avoiding the South China Sea.
Pipelines are, of course, more expensive to operate and vulnerable to attack by local insurgents and more mysterious forces, as US strategists are suspiciously keen to point out.  Ports in third countries are liable to meddling by pro-US governments, factions, and regional proxies.  But the PRC is building ‘em.  If the US can spend half a trillion dollars on our national security, the PRC is also willing to gamble a couple hundred billion on its energy security in defense and capital budgets (and enrich deserving PRC contractors) and bear the added operating expense of moving oil & gas from A to B not through the Malacca Strait.
Which means, of course, it’s time to hype that PRC threat to the Indian Ocean!
As these massive and risky alternative expenditures by the PRC—and the complete absence of plausible threats to Japan, South Korea, and Australia interests—indicate, the only genuine role the South China Sea played as a strategic chokepoint worthy of US interest is…against the PRC.
Bad news is, with the PRC putting its energy eggs in a multiplicity of baskets, if it ever comes to fighting the real war with China—a full-fledged campaign to strangle it by cutting off its energy imports (like we did with Japan in the 1930s! Hey! Useful historical analogy)—we’ll have to do it in a lot of places, like Burma, the Indian Ocean, and Djibouti, as well as the South China Sea.  A real world war!
Good news is, as the PRC’s shipping options increase, the strategic importance of each individual channel decreases…as does the desire of  the PRC, Japan, ROK, or Australia to risk regional peace for an increasingly irrelevant sideshow—and the local interests of Vietnam and the Philippines--diminishes. 
What I hope is that the South China Sea, instead of serving as the flashpoint for World War III, may well end up as a stage for imperial kabuki as the US & PRC bluster and posture to demonstrate resolve to their neighbors and allies…and an opportunity for political posturing, amped-up defense spending, and plenty of opportunities for the hottest of media and think-tank hot takes.
That would keep everybody happy.