The past months have seen the Philippines grappling with China over the Scarborough (Panatag) Shoal. Discussions abound from the Philippines’ perspective, but it is also necessary for the Filipino public to understand the country it is dealing with.
China’s claim over what it calls Huangyan Island is based on the belief that “it is China that first discovered it, named it, incorporated it into its territory, and exercised jurisdiction over it.” It considers Scarborough Shoal as an inherent part of its territory, along with Taiwan and Tibet, which forms part of its “core interests.” These refer to the promotion of its national sovereignty and territorial integrity over areas that it will not compromise at any price and will defend at all costs.
China also views Scarborough Shoal as an indispensable element that could generate potential maritime zones as part of the whole Zhongsha Islands. It regards the shoal as a critical component, “the loss or gain of which is thought to determine the loss or gain of the whole island group.” Thus, China is steadfast in its claim, fearing that if it “gives up an inch, it would lose a yard.”
These factors reflect a very narrow space for anything negotiable for China. Essentially, it demands that the Philippines respect its sovereignty over Scarborough Shoal or at least refrain from doing anything that it sees as creating “tensions.” If this is not possible, China is prepared for a naval standoff or a deadlock in negotiations for as long as it takes.
While facing an impasse, China takes advantage of its diplomatic, economic, and military power. Its recent actions are considered necessary to prevent losing “face” in the international community, and more so to avoid losing “credibility” to its people.
On the diplomatic front, China insists on its own approach of settling disputes. It has already objected to the Philippines’ proposition to elevate the dispute to the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea, arguing that it is illogical to submit a sovereign country’s territory to international arbitration. For China, it is politically risky to engage in a multilateral solution to dispute settlement; thus, it prefers a bilateral approach and plays this strategy to the hilt as it takes advantage of the asymmetry in power relations with the Philippines.
China also employs its vast economic resources as powerful leverage to defend its security interests. These include sanctions against Philippine agricultural export products and the freezing of Chinese tourism to the Philippines. It is expected that China will cash in on its economic arsenal and use it as cautionary insinuations of things to come in this prolonged standoff.
Moreover, China displays its military might to warn the Philippines against taking provocative measures. It has deployed vessels from its large and modern naval fleet to Scarborough Shoal to send a message that “while China does not want a war, it definitely has no fear of it.”
These actions generate a negative depiction of China. In the West, China is viewed as a belligerent nation increasingly empowered by its economic clout. In Asia, China is regarded as a resurgent empire treating its neighbors as mere tributaries that must bow to its inherent superiority. In the Philippines, China is perceived to be all these and more. It is largely viewed as a “bully” bent on putting pressures on the Philippines to yield to its demands in a persistent attempt to consolidate its territories as if it were above international law.
However, amidst the patriotic tendency to bash China, a more moderate perspective should also be considered. China’s actions are essentially the normal conduct and demeanor of a state. Like other countries, China behaves on the basis of protecting its national interests. And like other great powers, China employs its vast resources and capabilities to effectively pursue its global interests.
The grave dilemma is that, with its major power status, China’s actions are perceived to be tilting toward a hardline stance that is seen as a looming threat, even as it repeatedly calls for a diplomatic solution to the dispute.
While it is natural and logical for China to pursue its national interests, it is hoped that its government will temper its aggressive use of economic and military power. Implicit threats and sanctions from China, though officially unacknowledged, will only ignite and increase tensions. A balance of its firm offensive line with a more sincere engagement approach is necessary during negotiations; this is expected to generate a more positive development in the conflict. This will present a more open and sincere China that, while promoting its interests, is also cognizant of other countries’ interests and “face.”
Ultimately, what the spat in Scarborough Shoal reveals is not simply the competition for overlapping territories and the validity of territorial claims. Essentially, it exposes a critical showdown of state behaviors, particularly so when China, as a major power, throws its weight around, and the Philippines, as a small power, struggles to put up a decent “fight” and stand its ground.
As the dominant party in the dispute, China inevitably sets the tone toward a potential breakthrough or an escalation of tensions in Scarborough Shoal. With a more temperate China minus the military and economic intimidation, the Philippines will be able to trust and effectively negotiate with it, and hopefully arrive at mutually acceptable terms.
Andrea Chloe Wong is a senior foreign affairs research specialist at the Foreign Service Institute.