Last Sunday, Chinese Coast Guard ships drove away two civilian fishing boats contracted by the Philippine Navy to resupply the Philippine military outpost in Ayungin Shoal. This was the first time China stopped a routine supply mission in disputed areas in the West Philippine Sea, proving that China has now reached a higher, even more irresponsible, level of assertiveness in pressing its territorial claims.
It is only right that China’s outrageous conduct be denounced, that diplomatic protests be filed, and that international pressure be applied.
Why are China’s most recent actions so lacking in goodwill, so counter to longstanding assurances of a “peaceful rise” for great-power status? We are not alone in thinking that China is taking a harder line against the Philippines because it has no real answer, in multilateral forums or legal tribunals, to Philippine claims.
Ayungin Shoal is only 105 miles west of the Philippines, well within the exclusive economic zone defined by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, to which China is also a signatory. Since 1999 the Philippines has maintained an unusual military presence in the area, which is part of the sprawling Spratlys: A World War II-era ship run aground serves as decrepit base for a detachment of eight soldiers. But Ayungin is also part of a barangay that has been administering what the Philippines calls the Kalayaan Island Group since the 1970s.
China only has its nine-dash line theory, a grand historical claim that actually goes back only to 1947, was never recognized by other countries, was not advanced during the lengthy deliberations that led to the Unclos, and was not enforced until China’s rapid economic takeoff in the 1980s. There is no valid historical basis for the nine-dash line, and even if it did, it would no longer be valid. The international community cannot accept a Chinese claim to almost 90 percent of the entire South China Sea.
But the community of nations would accept a fait accompli, and that is the real objective of China’s increasing belligerence: to force the Philippines (and other claimant-countries, including especially Vietnam) to withdraw from the disputed areas or to accept a diminished position, and then to dare the international community to accept the new state of affairs. Possession is nine-tenths of the law; the old legal axiom has its geopolitical equivalent, too.
This explains what happened with Mischief Reef (Panganiban Reef), beginning in 1995. The cluster of huts allegedly for the use of Chinese fishermen turned over time into a military fortress; for all intents and purposes, Mischief Reef is now Chinese territory.
This explains what is happening to Scarborough Shoal (Bajo de Masinloc or Panatag Shoal). In June 2012, after a tense standoff between Philippine and Chinese vessels, the international community brokered a deal, an agreement for a mutual pullout. Unfortunately, only the Philippines withdrew. The Chinese vessels stayed, and today China has effective control of the area, too.
Ayungin Shoal is next on the list. In a popular multimedia narrative titled “The Shark and the Minnow,” the New York Times last year ran a riveting feature on what it called “an unlikely battleground in a geopolitical struggle that will shape the future of the South China Sea and, to some extent, the rest of the world.”
The report notes that the People’s Liberation Army had already listed Ayungin Shoal (Ren’ai Shoal, for the Chinese) in its “series of achievements.” It quotes from a TV interview given by the PLA’s Maj. Gen. Zhang Zhaozhong:
“We should do more such things in the future. For those small islands, only a few troopers are able to station on each of them, but there is no food or even drinking water there. If we carry out the cabbage strategy (a strategy of enveloping layers), you will not be able to send food and drinking water onto the islands. Without the supply for one or two weeks, the troopers stationed there will leave the islands on their own. Once they have left, they will never be able to come back.”
We are glad to know that an airdrop last Monday allowed the Armed Forces of the Philippines to provide fresh supplies to our eight-man detachment in Ayungin Shoal. But given the PLA’s avowed strategy of increasing attrition, we must continue to protest Chinese harassment at every international forum, and together with our Asean allies press China to agree, once and for all, on the long-promised Code of Conduct.