Tuesday, August 14, 2012

China and Philippine's Dispute over Scarborough Shoal

Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea has become a bone of contention between the Philippines and China. Both countries claim ownership of that barren shoal which is called Panatag by the Philippines and Huangyan by China. Scarborough shoal is composed of islets, reefs and an atoll. Beijing based its claim in history citing Yuan dynasty map of 1279 which included the shoal as part of its territory. The Philippines on the other hand premised its claim on geography since it is only about 123 nautical miles or 198 kilometer off Subic Bay while it is 350 nautical miles from China. The Philippines asserted that the shoal is within its 200-nautical mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), and therefore it has the legitimate right to explore and use its marine resources in accordance with the UN Convention on the Laws of the Sea (UNCLOS).                                                                                                                  

Countries at the South China Sea such as China, Taiwan, Vietnam, Philippines and to a lesser extent Malaysia and Brunei have overlapping claims over the outlying group of small islands and reefs in that sea. However, China claims sovereignty over almost all of the disputed islands. The conflicting claims resulted to an armed confrontation between China and Vietnam in the Paracel and Spratly’s islands. That engagement went badly for Vietnam, and since then China secured the area with its troops. The Philippines also claim some of the areas such as the Panganiban Reef in the Spratly’s which is just 87 nautical miles off its province of Palawan. But the Chinese fished at the sea around it. When the Philippines protested, China responded by building a four- story military garrison there.  China insisted that it is part of its territory. After some saber-rattling the Philippines backed down.                                                                  

Scarborough Shoal is not a part of Spratly’s Islands, and the Philippine government considers it as part of its municipality of Masinloc, Zambales. But the Chinese government also considers it as its own. On April 10, 2012 eight Chinese vessels with their crew were caught by the Philippine Navy with corals, giant clams and live sharks at the shoal. In response, Chinese authorities then sent navy vessels to that area.  Although there was no armed engagement between the Chinese and the Philippine vessels, the presence of the Chinese Naval ships enabled the Chinese fishermen to get away.  Relative to the incident the Philippine ambassador was called from his embassy in China, and the Chinese authorities told him that the Philippine government should let alone Chinese fishermen at the shoal and that its navy should not be sent there.                                                                 

The Philippines however, is not in a mood to submit to the threat of its giant and powerful neighbor. It has signified its openness to the assistance of its long time ally, the United States in the dispute.  The United States has so far shown supportive but sometimes ambivalent position with regard to the issue. Prior to the May incident the US senate passed a resolution on June 2011 condemning China’s use of force against smaller countries in the area and affirmed US willingness to use its military might against China’s aggression in South the China Sea. The US and the Philippines also agreed to conduct joint military exercise in the Philippines, an activity which further alienated the Philippines from China.  Despite that resolution from the US senate, Secretary of State Hilary Clinton issued statement that the US will not take side in the event armed conflict erupts in South China Sea.

Dealing with the Philippine resoluteness, China engages its small neighbor in the economic front. It declared 150 containers of bananas as infected with pest and as a result the fruits just rot in the Southern Chinese ports. Chinese tourist bookings to Boracay Island, a popular tourist destination, were also cancelled. The Chinese account for the fourth largest tourist arrivals after the Koreans, Americans and Japanese. The sanction had an immediate impact on the affected businessmen who relayed to the Aquino administration their situation. The president advised them to look for markets and tourists elsewhere.

Some Filipinos view the event at Scarborough Shoal as an act of aggression and violation of their country’s sovereignty by China. They marched at the Chinese embassy in the Philippines on May 11, 2012. Parallel march was also conducted at Chinese embassies in other countries. Before that protest China issued an advisory to its citizen in those countries not to go out of their homes in that date. To ease the tension, the Philippines sent a communication to China that the protest was an exercise of its citizens’ right for the redress of their grievance, and it was not initiated in any way by the government.

China is the world’s second largest economy and the third largest in size in terms of total area. It has also the world’s second largest army with 2.3 million active troops that are supported with a whooping military budget of US $129 billion in 2011.  It is also a recognized nuclear weapon state. Indeed, by all accounts China is the strongest country in the area at the South China Sea and perhaps in all of Asia. A small and poor country like the Philippines has a very limited chance of success against China in a military conflict. However, the Filipinos are united behind the national leadership of President Aquino to defend and protect a territory that they think as rightfully belonging to them.                                                                                                                           

The Philippines has so far made move to settle its dispute with China over the Scarborough Shoal. It has tried to propose with China to bring the matter to the International Tribunal for the Laws of the Sea (ITLOS), but the latter refused. It has also tried to get the involvement of its neighbors to resolve the issue. But so far, those countries have not yet responded. And most of all the Philippines keeps its line of communication always open with china in resolving their disputes diplomatically.

The disputed islets, reefs and cays in the South China Sea are mostly barren, uninhabited and devoid of vegetation. Apart from being rich fishing ground, they have little economic value at present. However, speculations are rife that those groups of island sit on vast natural gas and fossil oil deposits.  And it is probably the reason why China would want to have all of the islets of the South China as its own. China is a newly industrialized country with the biggest fossil fuel consumption in the world.                                   

With its super power potential, increasing international influence as well as its growing economic and military powers, China may eventually possess and control all of the disputed islands in the South China Sea. The country that can deter or stop China most from its aggression is the United States, the only remaining super power in the world. China will think twice before locking horns with the most powerful and influential country of the world.  Although the US is indebted financially to China, the latter owes its prosperity with its trading with the US and other Western countries. The US can do better in having partnership with countries in the area other than China if the contested areas are indeed rich in deposits of oil and other underwater mineral resources. The control of China of important key trading route in the sea may not be good for the US in its global projection of power. Adherence to international laws such as UNCLOS by nations having conflicting territorial claims of the disputed areas is perhaps the best option to avoid armed conflicts among them.

Related post:
China and Japan Territorial Dispute in East China Sea: a Flash Point in the Pacific