Chinese shadow play


After a month-long standoff with the Philippines over the Scarborough (Panatag) Shoal, China announced on May 13, 2012 that there will be a two-and-a-half month ban on fishing by Chinese fishermen in the South China Sea, including the area of the disputed shoal. The Philippines returned the gesture and imposed an identical ban in the area.

These announcements came amid reports that both countries have gone back to the negotiating table following the tense saber-rattling. It also came after Washington declared that it would remain neutral in the ongoing territorial spat between the two Asian countries, despite its half-a-century-old Mutual Defense Treaty with the Philippines.

China claims title to the rock and the waters surrounding Scarborough Shoal on the basis of discovery and ancient title. The Philippines raises similar claims, including a 1730 map indicating the rock to be within its archipelago. But the Philippines also claims it as part of its 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. This gives it the sovereign right to exclusively engage in fishing in the area.

Philippine officials should beware and disabuse themselves of any notion that the no-fishing policy China just announced means a Chinese retreat from Panatag. In fact, it is a classic Chinese shadow play, with Manila being lured back into the table of negotiations.

The Philippines’ policymakers should realize that the country can only get nowhere in negotiations with China which, by all indications, would prefer to let the controversy as is, that is, pending and unresolved rather than risk international arbitration with no clear positive outcome for itself.

The Scarborough Shoal is not China’s only unresolved territorial dispute in the region. It also has an unresolved dispute over the Spratly group of islands, which in addition to the Philippines and China, is also being claimed in whole or in part by Vietnam, Malaysia and Taiwan; the Paracels group of islands, which is disputed by China and Vietnam; the South Kuril islands, which are claimed by China, Japan and even Russia; and Senkaku Island, which is claimed by China and Japan. It also has unresolved land territorial disputes with its neighbors India and Bhutan.

In all these controversies, there are two common observations to be had: one, the Chinese insistence that these be resolved bilaterally; and two, the Chinese rejection that these be settled by international tribunals either by the International Court of Justice, the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea, or even by the Permanent Court of Arbitration. While ad hoc arbitrations within China have become the way to go for multinational companies doing business in China, ad hoc arbitrations to settle these territorial disputes involving China are literally unheard of.

Perhaps, part of the reason China has opted out of international adjudication to resolve these disputes is a painful historical experience it suffered in the late 1800s. It may be recalled that as an offshoot of the notorious “opium wars” of the era, China was humiliated into entering into the so-called unequal treaties of Nanking and Tientsin. These two treaties legitimized the opium trade in China, opened China to the influx of foreign goods, and even led to the ceding of Hong Kong to the British. This has led Chinese policymakers to be generally wary of the West and, at least, suspicious of international law as developed by western powers.

This theory appears to be confirmed by Maj. Gen. Zhu Chenghu, director general of the Research Division of the National Defense University of China. In a broadcast on Chinese national television on May 13, 2012, he declared that the recent standoff is in fact a “proxie fight” between China and the United States. The Philippines, owing to its having been a colony of the United States in Asia, is obviously perceived by Beijing to be nothing but a dependency, perhaps, even a lackey to the Americans. In fact, the thaw in the controversy only began when the United States manifested its neutrality on the dispute.

It is crucial hence for the Philippines to rid China of this misimpression. The task ahead is, one, to convince Beijing that the conflict in the Scarborough Shoal is solely because of conflicting claims and interests between two Asian neighbors with a very long standing history of friendship; and, two, a resolution that complies with the proscription on the use of force, recognized by all civilized nations. It is only in this context that China will agree to discuss the merit of which country has the superior claim to the Scarborough Shoal and perhaps, even to the Spratlys.

Prof. H. Harry L. Roque Jr. is director of the Institute of International Legal Studies, University of the Philippines Law Center.

Follow Us

Follow us on Facebook Follow on Twitter Follow on Twitter

More from this Column:

Recent Stories:

Complete stories on our Digital Edition newsstand for tablets, netbooks and mobile phones; 14-issue free trial. About to step out? Get breaking alerts on your mobile.phone. Text ON INQ BREAKING to 4467, for Globe, Smart and Sun subscribers in the Philippines.

Short URL: http://opinion.inquirer.net/?p=29979

Tags: China , Diplomacy , Foreign affairs , international relations , Maritime Dispute , Philippines , Scarborough Shoal , South China Sea

Copyright © 2014, .
To subscribe to the Philippine Daily Inquirer newspaper in the Philippines, call +63 2 896-6000 for Metro Manila and Metro Cebu or email your subscription request here.
Factual errors? Contact the Philippine Daily Inquirer's day desk. Believe this article violates journalistic ethics? Contact the Inquirer's Reader's Advocate. Or write The Readers' Advocate:
c/o Philippine Daily Inquirer Chino Roces Avenue corner Yague and Mascardo Streets, Makati City, Metro Manila, Philippines Or fax nos. +63 2 8974793 to 94


  • 4 Etihad passengers not yet located
  • DAR to complete installation of Luisita land reform beneficiaries in May
  • Ex-COA chief and co-accused in Arroyo plunder case nabbed
  • Kris Aquino’s ex- close in security named new Air Force chief
  • The ‘link diagram’ that killed ex-Bataan police officer
  • Sports

  • NLEX holds off Jumbo Plastic for a playoff berth
  • Pacquiao can dodge tax issues
  • F1 boss Bernie Ecclestone rejects bribery charges
  • Big Chill freezes Cafe France to arrest skid
  • Pacquiao has to go through PBA Rookie draft
  • Lifestyle

  • Summer Mayhem: The ultimate beach experience
  • A haven for steak lovers
  • Gongs and southern dances star in a workshop at San Francisco Bayanihan Center
  • This woman ate what?
  • Photos explore dynamics of youths’ sexual identity
  • Entertainment

  • Smithsonian wants photos, videos for ‘Day in the Life of Asian Pacific Americans’
  • What Garcia Marquez left behind
  • Has Ai Ai fallen deeply with ‘sireno?’
  • Sony developing live-action Barbie comedy
  • California court won’t review Jackson doctor case
  • Business

  • Metro Pacific acquires stake in Victorias
  • How ‘one percent’ economic elite was uncovered
  • Facebook profits triple as mobile soars
  • Insular Honors Sales Performers at Testimonial Rites
  • Apple increases stock buyback, will split stock
  • Technology

  • Vatican announces hashtag for April 27 canonizations
  • Enrile in Masters of the Universe, Lord of the Rings?
  • Top Traits of Digital Marketers
  • No truth to viral no-visa ‘chronicles’
  • ‘Unlimited’ Internet promos not really limitless; lawmakers call for probe
  • Opinion

  • Editorial cartoon, April 24, 2014
  • Talking to Janet
  • Respite
  • Bucket list
  • JPII in 1981: walking a tightrope
  • Global Nation

  • Tiff with HK over Luneta hostage fiasco finally over
  • DOLE sees more Filipinos hired by South Koreans
  • Filipinos second-shortest in Southeast Asia
  • Obama to visit Filipino soldiers in Fort Bonifacio
  • Fil-Am youth conferences unite under one theme
  • Marketplace