While the current state of disagreement between China and the Philippines over the Scarborough Shoal and, more generally, the South China Sea, is certainly not new, tensions seem to be rising.
After several international media sources started questioning whether or not China intends to engage in conflict with its smaller neighbor the Philippines over the Scarborough Shoal, situated in the South China Sea, the Chinese government has recently denied it plans to do. The rumors about potential conflict were initiated last week, when reports in Japan had mentioned that five Chinese warships, including two guided missile destroyers and two frigates, were approaching the Philippines. Nevertheless, on Friday, May 11th, the Chinese Minister of Defense quickly disclaimed the rumors that China is entering a state of war preparedness or dispatching its troops for combat.
While the Shoal has been a point of disagreement between the two countries for, at least, a decade, tensions over it significantly intensified since April 8th, 2012, when PLA Navy prevented a Philippine warship from arresting members of Chinese fishing boats near the Scarborough Shoal. Since then, the Chinese and Philippines’ vessels from have been locked in a high seas stand-off, with both sides refusing to withdraw.
On April 17th, 2012, the Philippines launched another diplomatic complaint, accusing China of harassing an archeological research ship near Scarborough Shoal. China rebutted this claim by stressing that the vessel was in Chinese waters and therefore should leave. On May 11th, hundreds of Filipinos demonstrated in front of the Chinese embassy in Manila Hundreds of Filipinos, urging China to withdraw its ships from the shoal and end its bullying practices against their country.
China has thus far refused to pay any attention to the protesters claims, because, just like the Philippines, mainly because it claims sovereignty over Scarborough Shoal, arguably as a result of the Shoal’s strategic importance. In fact, China makes claims over the entire South China Sea, which is believed to contain significant oil and gas reserves. In turn, the Philippines has long emphasized that the shoal falls under its sovereignty and that it has the right to patrol the area and safeguard its resources. According to Zha and Valencia (2001), one the more practical and immediate reasons motivating the frequent clashes between the Chinese fishermen and the Philippine maritime is the abundance of fish around the shoal. Apart from these reasons, analysts have further stressed that the Scarborough Shoal is also rich in mineral resources, which would add an important economic dimension to the argument.
The current stand-off is not the first incident taking place over the Shoal between the two countries. In fact, in 2000, a Philippine navy patrol fired warning shots near two Chinese boats. While the boats managed to escape, China promptly accused the Philippines of harassing, forcibly boarding and robbing Chinese boats in the waters. According to Valencia and Zha (2001), the Philippines not only retorted that the Chinese fishing boats were endangering the coral reef and using illegal dynamite fishing, but also emphasized that the U.S. would support it in a conflict with China, under the obligations set by the U.S./Philippine 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty. Seeing the recently renewed tensions between China and the Philippines, the U.S. has expressed its support for the Philippines, while also recently their commitments under the 1951 Treaty as well as the 2011 Manila Declaration, to ensure that their partnership is adequately responsive to global and regional challenges.
As China makes claims of sovereignty over the entire South China Sea, the tensions over Scarborough Shoal fall within a wider pattern of regional tension between China and the Philippines. For instance, in 1995, the two countries had a spat over Mischief Reef, a part of Spratly Island group, when China engaged in a military confrontation with the Philippines, after occupying the Reef.
According to Zha and Valencia (2001), in time, China has managed to solidify its claims over Scarborough Shoal through the constant presence of its fishermen, while the Philippines has ended up focusing more on raising international awareness about China’s behavior. So, while this current renewal of tensions between the two countries may not lead to war, it could nevertheless help China further reaffirm its claims over the Shoal and the “right” of its fishermen to venture in waters claimed by the Philippines.
For further reading: Valencia, Mark J.and Zha, Daojiong, Mischief Reef: Geopolitics and implications, Journal of Contemporary Asia, 2001, Volume 31(1).
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