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Dossier: China, the Philippines and the Scarborough Shoal

Rising tension in the South China Sea: China, the Philippines and the Scarborough Shoal

The April/May 2012 standoff between China and the Philippines over the Scarborough Shoal went beyond the normal, periodic disputes that are part and parcel of the South China Sea, but does the incident really represent an escalation in the ongoing territorial dispute?

Storified by Open Briefing · Mon, May 21 2012 13:19:07


TheScarborough Shoal (Chinese: Huangyan Island; Filipino: Panatag Shoal) is 150square kilometer grouping of uninhabited reefs and rocky islets 800 kilometers southeast of Hong Kong and220 kilometers off the coast of the main Philippines island of Luzon.The Philippines claim the territory is within its exclusive economic zone (EEZ), but China also claims sovereignty based on arguments of historical discovery leading back to 1279.

On April8 2012, Philippines naval ship BRP Gregorio del Pilar confronted between eight and twelve Chinese fishing vesselsfishing near the shoal. The navalship arrived at the shoal in response to reports of alleged illegal fishing andharvesting of protected species (sharks and giant clams) by the Chinese fishingvessels. Chinese government officials have suggested the fishermen were taking shelter from bad weather.

Philippine naval officers boarded the fishing vessels and inspected the catch. Two Chinese surveillance ships, the Chinese coastguard and fisheries protection vesselsintervened in the attempted arrest of the fishermen. After four weeks, the Philippines navy frigate and two Chinese surveillance boats remained atScarborough Shoal in a bid to assert sovereignty over the area. More recentreports suggested that both nations have stationed non-military vessels at theshoal.


Philippine navy in standoff with China ships – Asia … – AljazeeraApr 11, 2012 … The Philippines has summoned China's ambassador in Manila after two Chinese ships blocked a Philippine Navy vessel…
A Chinese perspective on the confrontation:
Backgrounder: Basic facts on China's sovereignty over Huangyan …Backgrounder: Basic facts on China's sovereignty over Huangyan Island. 2012- 05-08 04:21:04 GMT2012-05-08 12:21:04(Beijing Time) Xin…
A Filipino perspective:
Scarborough will not be Mischief Reef reduxThe most recent “standoff” with China began on April 8, 2012 when eight Chinese fishing vessels set anchor in the Scarborough Shoal — kno…

Responses to the April 8 Scarborough Shoal incident

The Scarborough Shoal incident has triggered a war of words, economic retaliation, public protests, fishing bans and low level cyber attacks.

Peace will be a miracle if provocation lastsMay 9, 2012 … The sixth-generation semi-submersible CNOOC 981 is seen in the South China Sea, 320 kilometers southeast of Hong Kong. …
China daily warns of 'small-scale war' with Philippines | Inquirer …Apr 25, 2012 … One of China's most popular newspapers has warned of a potential “small-scale war” between Beijing and Manila as a…
Public display of nationalistic sentiments were evident both in Manila and Beijing. Consulates in Chinese and Philippine capital cities faced public protests over the territorial row.
HK activists protest against Scarborough Shoal standoff – The China …May 11, 2012 … A group of Hong Kong activists protested outside the Philippine consulate office Thursday against a standoff near the …
Protests in Philippines over China disputealjazeeraenglish
In addition to public protests Chinese travel agencies suspended tours tothe Philippines. China SouthernAirlines, one of the three major Chinese airlines cut flights to the Philippinesas tourist numbers shrunk amid fears about public safety due to Filipinoprotests. Some commentators linked the quarantining of Filipino bananas as part of China’s economic retaliation.
CHINA – PHILIPPINES South China Sea: Southern Airlines cuts …3 days ago … Beijing (AsiaNews/Agencies) – China Southern Airlines, one of China's … a month-long standoff at Scarborough Shoal…
Huangyan Island or Scarborough Shoal?-Media Watch May 11 – BONTVbontvchina
Further inflaming tension the Philippines moved ahead with joint military drills with the United States. The exercises gave rise to discussion of what role the US military would play in the event of military confrontation over Scarborough Shoal, considering the mutual defense treaty between the United States and the Philippines.
U.S.-Philippines War Games Held Amid Tensions With China …Apr 16, 2012 … Philippine officials stressed repeatedly that the military exercises, in the … to the Scarborough Shoal standoff and…
US commander reaffirms Philippines defense treatyApr 22, 2012 … He also stressed that US-Philippine military exercises that began last week … There is no tie between Scarborough Sh…
On the cyber front, Chinese and Filipinouniversity websites were defaced by hackers with contrasting claims over the Scarborough Shoal.
South China Sea Spat goes Cyber | ASEAN Beat – The DiplomatMay 11, 2012 … China continues to raise the heat in its dispute with the Philippines over the sovereignty of Scarborough Shoal/Huangy…
Both China and the Philippines announced temporary fishing bans to prevent over fishing and allow stocks to replenish. Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario stated:

“We do not recognize China’s fishing ban inasmuch as portions of the ban encompass our Exclusive Economic Zone, however, the president has decided that in view of the accelerated depletion of our marine resources, it would be advisable for us to issue our own fishing ban for a period of time to replenish our fish stock.”

China and the Philippines Play the Green Card in Sea Dispute …3 days ago … By temporarily banning fishing in the area of their five-week maritime standoff, China and the Philippines may both be l…
PH welcomes China fishing ban in Panatag: Saying Scarborough Shoal has already suffered… http://goo.gl/fb/4V5nbNews Philippines

Does the April 8 Scarborough Shoal incident have the potential to escalate tensions over South China Sea maritime disputes?

The South China Sea (SCS) and the East China Sea have been the site of numerous maritime skirmishes, which tend to follow a similar pattern: fishing andfisheries enforcement becomes a proxy through which sovereignty claims areexpressed. While there may be legitimate concerns to protect the marine andaquatic resources in territorial waters for domestic nationals, the overarchingtheme of confrontation is linked with territorial claims.
The Scarborough Shoal is no stranger to this type of maritime confrontation:
Scarborough shoal standoff: A historical timeline | Inquirer Global …May 9, 2012 … Scarborough Shoal Historical Timeline … this site do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of management and…
The question is whether in light of the continued maritime confrontations experienced in the SCS how is the 8 April 2012 Scarborough Shoal conflict any different?

Domestic politics

There can be little doubt that the war of words between Chinese and Filipino authorities are being leveraged to stoke nationalistic sentiment in domestic constituencies. Nationalism has always played an important role in SCS disputes.

China is moving closer to its once in adecade leadership transition later this year with the Communist Party’s 18thCongress scheduled for the second half of 2012 and Premier Wen Jiabao and President Hu Jintao resigning in March 2013. Suggestion is made that pro-militaryconfrontation rhetoric from key state owned media outlets and politicians isbeen used to encourage nationalistic sentiment as a distraction from thesuspension of Bo Xilai from the Politburo and the deeper politicalructions at the root of his suspension between the neo-maoists and the economic/political reformers.

Dispute Between China and Philippines Over Island Becomes More …Dispute Between China and Philippines Over Island Becomes More Heated. By JANE PERLEZ. Published: May 10, 2012. BEIJING — China escalat…
The specific danger of political actors, Communist Party factions and provincial agencies politically engaging in politically competitive sovereignty rhetoric is that it impedes a centralised development of Chinese foreign policy on the SCS. A recent International Crisis Group report stated;

“The conflicting mandates and lack of coordination among Chinese government agencies, many of which strive to increase their power and budget, have stoked tensions in the South China Sea … Beijing has deliberately imbued the South China Sea disputes with nationalist sentiment by perpetually highlighting China’s historical claims. This policy has led to a growing domestic demand for assertive action. While Beijing has been able to rein in nationalist sentiment over the South China Sea when it adopts a specific policy, this heated environment still limits its policy options and its ability to manage the issue.”

Stirring up the South China Sea (I) – International Crisis GroupApr 23, 2012 … China is one of its own worst enemies in the South China Sea, as its local governments and agencies struggle for power…
Filipino President Benigno Aquino III faces his own domestic challenges over the SCS conflict. Aquino who was elected in 2010 on a strong anti-corruption platform is taking a more strident approach to Filipino maritime boundary claims. This is in stark contrast to Macapagal Arroyo and Estrada who were sometimes seen as breaking ranks with other ASEAN SCS claimants and developing an accommodating stance towards China with little benefit for the Philippines as a country. Part of Aquino’s anti-corruption platform is the pursuit of  corruption charges against Arroyo relating to a $330m government contract with Chinese telecommunications. The case can be seen both as attack on alleged corruption and a strong political rebuke of the relationship Arroyo built with Chinese private and state owned businesses. The critique would also extend to Arroyo’s handling of past maritime conflicts.
High-stakes brinkmanship on South China Sea – The Globe and MailApr 11, 2012 … A combination photo shows Chinese fishing boats spotted in the Scarborough Shoal, a small group of rocky formations wh…
Natural resources, oil and gas

The significant oil and gas reserves amplify SCS territorial conflict in an age of rising regional powers seeking increased energy security to maintain economic growth. Proven and undiscovered oil reserve estimatesin the South China Sea range as high as 213 billion barrels of oil according to the 2008 US Energy Information Administration. The SCS reserves surpassevery country’s proven oil reserves except Saudi Arabia and Venezuela,according to the BP Statistical Review.

A number of SCS nations have issued exploration licenses over contested areas. Just prior to the Scarborough Shoal standoff the Philippines issued a exploration drilling license to a Philippine company to start exploration in the contested Reed Bank which is about 148 kilometers (92 miles) off the Philippine island of Palawan.

MVP: Philex to drill for oil at Reed Bank | ABS-CBN News3 days ago … MANILA, Philippines – A Philippine oil firm said Thursday it would start drilling next year at a potentially massive nat…
Certainly exploratory oil and gas activities can agitate territorial disputes. The level of diplomatic and national angst this causes will increase if these exploratory activities move to development and production. One reason exploration may not elicit the same tension as fisheries is that some countries believe that hydrocarbons may open the door for Joint Development Areas/Agreements (JDAs). Deng Xiaoping was famously known for advancing the ‘setting aside of the dispute and pursuing joint development’ concept to deal with conflict territorial claims in the SCS and East China Sea.

One of the challenges for ASEAN SCS claimants is that even if China’s ‘nine-dash line’ (the demarcation line used by China in the SCS) is rejected by international arbitrators such as the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS) or the International Court of Justice (ICJ) and Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines are granted EEZ and continental shelf rights similar to their existing claims, China will be a significant buyer of any petroleum resources. It is forecasted that 60% of China’s oil consumption will be imported by 2020, making exploration in the South China Sea necessary to reduce dependence on oil imports.

Oil and gas aren’t the only valuable resources of the SCS. As Ian Townsend-Gault, a law professor at the University of British Columbia and an expert in maritime law and the South China Sea points out:

“There are 700 million people living on the coasts of the South China Sea who derive something close to 80 per cent of their proteins from it. If the fishery collapses, what are these people going to eat? That is the human-security issue that people should really be looking at.”

As noted, fisheries management has become an important proxy through which territorial claims are expressed. However, for fishing communities deprivation of fisheries by ‘external surveillance’ enforcement has strong ramifications on local livelihoods which feeds into broader domestic political rhetoric.

Scarborough Shoal stand-off sparks protests – Features – Al Jazeera …May 13, 2012 … Manila, The Philippines – For many Filipinos, it's a no-brainer: Scarborough Shoal , the triangle-shaped 150 square…
Climate change impacts on fisheries may increase disputes over fishery resources. Warming waters may lead key species to migrate north to cooler waters. A commentator with the Center for a New American Security suggests:

“What this means is that fish stocks in the South China Seaare projected to migrate north (poleward) toward cooler waters as the water inthe region continues to warm. For Vietnam, this may force fish stocks farthernorth and closer to China. Given the importance of maritime fisheries to theVietnamese economy (and its peoples’ daily diet), Vietnamese fishing trawlers arelikely to take a risk and move closer to China to develop those fish stocks” 

Climate Change, Fisheries and the South China Sea | Center for a …Sep 27, 2011 … A short editorial in this morning's New York Times caught my attention, particularly because it's relevant to …
Regional geopolitics: Multilateralism, sea lanes and Pivots
The Philippines had pushed for a unified ASEAN position on the South China Sea at the 20th ASEAN Summit only days before the 8 April incident. Specifically, the Philippines government advocated the formation of regional consensus on a formal code of conduct (CoC) before engaging or negotiating with China in relation to the CoC.
Philippines urges united Asean stand on South China SeaApr 3, 2012 … PHNOM PENH (AFP) – Asean should forge a common position on a proposed code of conduct aimed at easing tensions in the S…
ASEAN floundering over sea code of conduct | The Japan Times …Mar 26, 2012 … In 2002 the parties agreed on a political Declaration of Conduct (DoC) and finally in July 2011 on guidelines for its …
ASEAN: a united front to tackle the South China Sea issue | East …5 days ago … Author: Sanchita Basu Das, ISEAS ASEAN concluded its 20th Summit on 4 April 2012. The discussion shifted away from build…
While it is clear Vietnam and the Philippines want all 10 ASEAN members (of which only four are SCS claimants) to direct SCS negotiations and confidence building measures, China has shown a strong preference for bilateral negotiations. For those ASEAN members that do not have a territorial stake in the SCS, the respective approaches of multilateral and bilateral territory negotiation are fraught with challenges.

With the shadow of a US Asia Pacific ‘pivot’ hanging over demands for multilateral approaches, the region and the SCS issue may become increasingly polarised along US/China alliance lines. Bilateral negotiation of maritime boundaries between the ASEAN claimants (Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines) and China may qualify negotiations to narrowly defined sets of interests with broad regional and international implications. Chinese officials would be keenly aware that certain actions in asserting its claimed maritime territory could make the impetus for ASEAN multilateralism stronger. The small stick approach asserts territory without raising the spectre of Chinese power requiring a multilateral countering response.

Analysis: China's 'small stick' approach to sea dispute …3 days ago … [unable to retrieve full-text content]HONG KONG – In a month-long standoff between China and the Philippines over a disp…
The small stick approach is not sustainable when the Chinese security community perceive control and management of SCS sea lines of communication as a core interest. As a critical channel for key export products the stakes for control of the waters are high. The SCS is economically important not only for export driven growth economies of South and Southeast Asia but also for the energy importers of East Asia and North America.
US think-tank warns China spat to worsen | ABS-CBN News2 days ago … WASHINGTON D.C. – China's growing belligerence in disputed waters of the South China Sea will only grow and worsen, …
The US Asia Pacific pivot – an emerging theme for the Obama administration’s foreign policy – may allow the United States to strategically and flexibly decide its regional participation in SCS conflict; however, the Mutual Defense Treaty between the Philippines and the United States does not necessarily offer the same flexibility. A recent Diplomat article highlighted the strong contradiction in the US position:
“The U.S. has promised Manila that it will honor its treaty obligations, while effectively assuring China that it will stay out of the dispute. In the event of an armed conflict, these positions become totally incompatible. It would be a horrible dilemma for the Obama administration.”
Could U.S. Get Sucked Into War? | Flashpoints5 days ago … The standoff between China and the Philippines in the South China Sea has evolved over the last five weeks into a bizarr…
What does a US pivot mean beyond adhering to a mutual defence treaty? Some domestic commentators may have expected it to entail a more aggressive advocacy or projection of US interests in the region. What the Scarborough Shoal incident indicates is that the US pivot as a practical foreign policy platform may still be finding its diplomatic and strategic feet.
Scarborough Shoal and Safeguarding American Interests http://wp.me/p1P7KM-EVICR


The Scarborough Shoal conflict is unique in that in comes at a time when both countries have strong domestic political drivers for confrontation or assertive diplomatic posturing on maritime disputes. A very clear US foreign policy focus on pivoting towards the Asia Pacific, increasing oil and gas exploration licensing, pressure for multilateral negotiation and increasing importance of SCS sea lanes for carriage of energy resources add great pressure to these domestic dynamics. While the 8 April incident may eventually deescalate, it has set a tone for problematic Sino-Philippine relations: a context that may see greater efforts for multilateral collaboration between ASEAN claimants (discretely supported by key regional powers) for territory dispute resolution.

Dossier opened: 12 May 2012
Dossier closed: 21 May 2012

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