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Dispute in the South China Sea
China has long claimed virtually all of the South China Sea, which is believed to sit atop vast reserves of oil and gas. In the last five weeks, a dispute has arisen over what is known in English as the Scarborough Shoal (Huangyan Island in Chinese).
Deng Zhonghua of the Dept. of Boundary and Ocean Affairs of China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs / South China Morning Post
“At daybreak on April 10, the area of Huangyan Island in the South China Sea was a scene of calm sea and clear sky. The Qiong-Qionghai 03026 and a dozen other Chinese fishing boats, from Tanmen in Hainan, were fishing inside the lagoon as usual.
“Suddenly, a Philippine Navy ship showed up at the mouth of the lagoon. It blocked the Chinese fishing boats from leaving while releasing a speedboat to board some of them.
At 11am, soldiers boarded Chen Zebo’s boat, the Qiong-Qionghai 03026. Chen, who spoke no English, protested in Chinese: ‘Huangyan Island is China’s! China’s!’
“But the verbal protest did not stop the soldiers from going through their belongings and taking photos of the surroundings. But Chen refused to sign a document that he thought was an admission of guilt for ‘illegal fishing.’ Three other Chinese fishing boats were similarly harassed….
“The key to understanding this complex incident lies in who has sovereignty over Huangyan Island.
“The Philippines has claimed that since Huangyan Island is far from China but closer to the Philippines, it should be a Philippine ‘territory.’
“True, Huangyan Island is closer to the Philippines, yet geographical proximity has never been a principle of determining territorial ownership in international law. [Ed. think Falklands, by this way of reasoning.] Back in 1935, the Chinese government announced the names of 132 islands, reefs, shoals and sands in the South China Sea which included Huangyan Island.
“The Chinese government renamed the island twice, in 1947 and in 1983, settling on the official name of Huangyan….
“Huangyan was marked outside the Philippines’ territorial limits in the official Philippine maps published in 1981 and 1984. The map published in 2006 showed no changes.
“In 1990, the then Philippine ambassador to Germany wrote to German radio enthusiasts stating clearly that ‘the Scarborough Reef or Huangyan Dao does not fall within the territorial sovereignty of the Philippines.’ This position was reaffirmed in documents issued by the Philippine Dept. of Environmental and Natural Resources….
“Such a situation remained unchanged until 1997, when the Philippines claimed ‘sovereignty’ over Huangyan Island on the grounds that it lies within its exclusive economic zone.
“It was not until 2009 that the Philippines included Huangyan Island in its regime of islands with its amended Archipelagic Baselines Law. The Philippines did not even make up its mind as to what Huangyan Island was to be called until just a few days ago. Such behavior can hardly be considered serious.
“By repudiating its long-held policies and commitments, and seeking to unilaterally change the status quo, the Philippines revealed its true colors.
“Recently, the Philippines used gunboats to harass unarmed Chinese fishermen, made war-mongering remarks, called off diplomatic dialogue with China, and threatened to launch demonstrations around the world. Its actions run counter to its professed desire to settle the dispute by peaceful means.”
China has denied in the past few days it is increasing combat readiness in response to the row.
Last Friday, May 11, around 300 protesters demonstrated outside the Chinese embassy in the Philippines to denounce ‘bullying’ by Beijing. Chinese tour operators have been told to suspend trips to the Philippines.
Meanwhile, the U.S. is in a delicate spot. The relationship with the Philippines went south when the U.S. lost Clark Air Base and Subic Bay (the naval base), but a 60-year-old mutual defense pact between the two can rapidly involve the United States in any conflict between the Philippines and China. Washington is sending signals it may not come to Manila’s aid, while Manila is looking to Washington for help equipping its second-rate military.
Defense News’ Wendell Minnick listed the following potential scenario, among others, as proposed by Carlyle Thayer, a professor at University of New South Wales at the Australian Defense Force Academy, in the May 7, 2012 issue.
“Chinese fishing boats continue to fish in the Philippines’ EEZ (exclusive economic zone). In this scenario, the Philippine Coast Guard attempts to arrest fishermen at Scarborough Shoal. The fishermen display automatic weapons and call for assistance. Chinese surveillance ships intervene and move aggressively to force the Coast Guard vessel away. One Chinese fisherman fires at the Coast Guard vessel with an assault rifle; the Coast Guard vessel fires warning shots. This is misinterpreted by a Chinese surveillance ship, which rams the Coast Guard vessel. The crews on both vessels engage in a brief firefight leading to fatalities before calm is restored.
“This scenario is both the ‘most likely and the most troubling,’ said retired U.S. Navy Adm. Walter Doran, former commander of U.S. Pacific Fleet. ‘I am sure the Chinese have little respect for the Philippine capability to defend their claims and assets, and therefore they are least likely to put up with any push back from the Philippines.
“However, a firefight between Chinese fishermen and Philippine Coast Guard vessels appears unlikely, said Gary Li, an analyst at U.K.-based Executive Analysis. ‘Not very likely, as Chinese fishing vessels and fishermen are not armed with anything other than maybe a hook,’ Li said. Chinese surveillance vessels would also not engage in a firefight in such an open way, he said. ‘Chinese paramilitaries have to clear everything with headquarters, and this kind of escalation would be very damaging so not likely to be allowed.’”
Coupled with other scenarios put forward, retired Adm. Doran says:
“I worry that eventually one side or the other will make a miscalculation or some minor player will overreact to events and an uncontrollable series of events will unfold.”
“Doran’s main worry is about the Philippines due to the emotions that are in play, and Filipino forces’ lack of training and real capability. ‘Whereas Vietnam and Indonesia, among others, are also subject to potential events, the Philippines, in my estimation, are most likely to handle the whole thing badly and get in over their heads.’”