Sea standoff raises tension

The term “rocky relations” took on new meaning after Chinese civilian maritime enforcement ships confronted a Philippines Navy frigate in a standoff over a disputed shoal in the South China Sea.

By Carlyle A. Thayer (Perspective)

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Published: Sun 17 Jun 2012, 10:10 PM

Last updated: Fri 3 Apr 2015, 3:42 PM

The Scarborough Shoal is marked by five rocks, the tallest of which projects three metres above water at high tide. The surrounding fishing grounds and, more importantly, the legal principles determining ownership and right of exploitation are at issue.

How the dispute is resolved holds broader implications for the region wary of a rising China.

South China Sea islands and reefs have been a bone of contention between China and its neighbours for decades. Scarborough Shoal – a triangular-shaped chain of reefs and rocks, enclosing an area of 150 square kilometres – emerged as a new flashpoint in April. The shoal, approximately 200 kilometres west of Subic Bay, is north of the Spratly Islands, contested between China and Vietnam.

The standoff began on April 8 when a Philippine reconnaissance aircraft spotted five Chinese fishing vessels in the lagoon. The Philippine Navy dispatched a frigate to investigate the Chinese vessels and two days later discovered giant clams, coral and sharks, species protected under Philippines law and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna.

Two China Marine Surveillance ships soon arrived, interposing themselves between the frigate and the fishing vessels. China and the Philippines formally protested the other’s actions.

In an effort to lower tensions, the Philippines withdrew the navy frigate, replacing it with a Coast Guard cutter. The standoff continues today. Both China and the Philippines claim that Scarborough Shoal is an integral part of their national territory. China refers to Scarborough Shoal as Huangyan Island, claiming “indisputable sovereignty” over the island and adjacent waters on the basis of historical discovery.

China and the Philippines could resolve the dispute through bilateral negotiations or could agree to arbitration by an international tribunal such as the International Court of Justice. China argues that the dispute should be settled bilaterally; the Philippines wants the dispute to go before the International Tribunal on Law of the Sea, established by UNCLOS.

Both sides use political posturing to accompany bilateral diplomacy to advance their claims. The Philippines has adopted a three-pronged strategy – legal, political and diplomatic – threatening to take the dispute unilaterally to the international tribunal; seeking support from fellow members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and the international community; and continuing negotiations with China.

China resorts to a variety of measures to pressure the Philippines: Responding to minor anti-China protests in Manila and elsewhere around the world, China issued a travel advisory leading to cancellation of 80 scheduled Chinese tour groups and charter flights to the Philippines; temporarily halted imports of Filipino bananas on a pretext of infestation; and orchestrated a hostile press campaign.

China also announced imposition of a unilateral fishing ban in the South China Sea covering the area that includes the shoal, warning that action would be taken against foreign fishing vessels that violate the ban, with the ostensible purpose of protecting fishing stocks during the spawning season.

The Philippines countered by refusing to recognise the validity of the Chinese ban, but issued its own fishing ban covering the shoal.

Security implications of the standoff could not be missed. In the midst of the standoff, the Philippines and the United States conducted their annual Balikatan military exercise. One phase involved Filipino and US forces conducting counterterrorism raids on an oilrig in waters off the west coast of Palawan Island facing the South China Sea. China charged that US support for the Philippines only emboldened Manila to act rashly and called on the US to rein in its ally.

China’s actions – refusing to make diplomatic concessions, deploying civilian enforcement ships and using economic sanctions – serve as an object lesson to other regional states about potential costs of confronting China over territorial disputes in the South China Sea. The standoff also reminds Washington about the need for careful diplomacy that reassures allies without entangling itself in a distant conflict.

Carlyle A. Thayer is Emeritus Professor, The University of New South Wales at the Australian Defence Force Academy, Canberra

© 2012 Yale Center for the Study of 

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