Scarborough Shoal is a triangle of small islands circling a lagoon of 150 square kilometers. Populated only by rich marine and coral life, it bristled with tension this past week as Chinese and Filipino vessels faced off in a continuing battle of possession.
Things came to a head on April 8 in the shoal that the Philippines claims as part of its territory and calls, now somewhat ironically, Panatag (the Filipino word for “calm”). A Philippine Navy surveillance aircraft had sighted eight Chinese fishing vessels in the shoal, and the country’s biggest warship, the BRP Gregorio del Pilar, was forthwith dispatched to the area. On April 10, sailors from the Gregorio del Pilar boarded the Chinese fishing vessels, where they found a trove of Philippine marine life such as giant clams, sharks and corals in the holds. But the sudden arrival of two Chinese surveillance ships prevented the Philippine troops from arresting the Chinese fishermen for poaching.
The tension has since been defused as a result of a flurry of diplomatic efforts between Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario and Chinese Ambassador Ma Keqing, with the Gregorio del Pilar and subsequently a Chinese surveillance ship pulling out. As of yesterday, only a Philippine Coast Guard vessel and one Chinese maritime vessel were left in the shoal that China calls Huangyan Island. But the dispute over possession is far from over, as graphically shown by the fact that the Chinese fishing vessels sailed away with their illegal cargo despite Del Rosario’s earlier insistence that it be confiscated. What is that but impunity? The foreign secretary had also earlier said that the Philippines was “pursuing the diplomatic track in terms of coming to a resolution on the issue,” but eventually admitted that his hopes had not led to the desired conclusion.
The impasse shouldn’t surprise anyone. China apparently believes that the Philippines would be cowed by its military might. That may be so, but it does not mean we should roll over and play dead.
President Aquino has made the appropriate remarks: “What is important is that we take care of our sovereignty. We cannot give [Scarborough Shoal] away and we cannot depend on others but ourselves.” Indeed, Scarborough Shoal lies within the Philippines’ 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone and is just 108 nautical miles away from Masinloc, Zambales. The exclusive economic zone is mandated by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos), to which the Philippines and China are signatories.
Yet China has claimed all of what is found in the West Philippine Sea (or what it calls the South China Sea) and has invoked ancient history as its proof of possession. China claims that Scarborough Shoal has been its territory since the Yuan Dynasty in the 13th and 14th century. “All the official maps published by the Chinese governments of different periods marked Huangyan Island as Chinese territory,” the Chinese government said in a statement. As for the Philippines’ 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone, the Chinese government said that “coastal states have no right to harm the inherent territory and sovereignty of other countries,” and that “any attempt to change the ownership of the territorial sovereignty by Unclos is a violation of international law.”
What China appears to be telling the Philippines is that no matter what the UN law says, you can’t have Scarborough Shoal because it’s always been ours. It’s a claim that can be described as not only tenuous considering that modernity has rewritten maps over and over, but also bullying because it flouts territorial law.
This is not the first time Chinese fishermen have been caught plundering Philippine seas. It won’t be the last, given how China has constantly shrugged off Philippine protestations and claims of ownership as intrusion (it even labelled the Gregorio del Pilar’s patrol of Philippine seas as trespassing). What to do with this bullying, which disregards international law with impunity? How to safeguard our endangered territory?
Diplomacy is, of course, the correct way to go. But beyond diplomatic efforts, we must stand our ground, and there is the international community, specifically Asean and the United Nations, from which to seek support and just resolution.
As Mr. Aquino had earlier said, “we will not be pushed around because we are a tiny state compared with theirs.” He agreed that it would be foolish to escalate tensions but added: “We think we have very solid grounds to say ‘Do not intrude into our territory.’ … [W]e do have to protect our rights.”