What’s at stake in PH-China standoff


Map showing the disputed areas in the West Philippine Sea (south China Sea), including the Spratlys Islands and Scarborough Shoal. AFP

It started like many other minor confrontations over the specks of isles dotting some of the world’s busiest shipping lanes. But the risks in the latest flare-up over a South China Sea shoal are much bigger than the territory itself.

Armed vessels from the Philippines and its much more powerful neighbor, China, have faced off for two weeks at the horseshoe-shaped Scarborough Shoal. Either side could miscalculate—and consequences could bear down on the whole region, and drag in the United States, too.

Here’s a look at the key players, issues and what’s at stake:

How it started

The Philippine Navy says it caught Chinese fishermen poaching, and on April 10 two Chinese vessels moved in to protect them. The fishing boats slipped away, leaving behind a tense standoff with each side hoping the other will pull out first.

History of flash points

The shoal, which the Philippines calls Panatag Shoal, is among 200 islands, coral outcrops and banks spread over the South China Sea—called by the Philippines West Philippine Sea—with rich fishing grounds and other resources. The biggest of them are the Spratlys, claimed all or in part by the Philippines, China, Taiwan, Malaysia, Brunei and Vietnam.

There have been sporadic shoot-outs at sea in the past few decades—China-Vietnam, China-Philippines, Taiwan-Vietnam and Philippines-Vietnam—with navies sinking ships and fortifying disputed islands. A major clash in 1988 between China and Vietnam killed 64 Vietnamese soldiers. China took over the Philippine-occupied Mischief Reef in a surprise mini-invasion in 1995.

Then in 2002, all parties agreed to a status quo.

It largely held. Until now.

Political context

Last year, Manila accused Chinese vessels of blocking its energy exploration ships in Philippine waters and firing to scare away Philippine fishermen.

It was just a year after President Aquino took office promising to fight corruption and restore national dignity. His predecessor, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, was accused of cozying up to Beijing and corrupt deals with Chinese investors. Contracts were scrapped, and Aquino turned to the country’s traditional ally, the United States, just as US President Barack Obama sought to reengage in Asia.

On the other hand, China—as a rising economic and military power—is asserting territorial claims and in no mood to show weakness.

Overlapping claims

Scarborough Shoal lies within Manila’s 370-kilometer (230-mile) exclusive economic zone, recognized under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. But China says the Philippines is misinterpreting the law. Beijing’s position is based on ancient maps, though it’s unclear how much weight they carry today.

China’s map submitted to the United Nations in 2009 claims virtually the entire South China Sea, but Beijing has failed to clarify the exact extent of its claims. It turned down a Philippine invitation for international arbitration.

US role

Manila feels—and so does China—that the Philippines has US backing.

That’s true up to a point.

The United States is obligated to defend the Philippines from outside aggression under a defense treaty, and has close ties with Manila’s security forces in their fight against southern Muslim militants. Recently, Washington has helped modernize the poorly armed Philippine forces, particularly the Navy.

Washington angered Beijing in 2010 when it declared that unimpeded commerce and resolution of disputes in the South China Sea are in the United States’ interest.

But the United States—with ever-increasing economic ties to China—has always maintained it is not taking sides.

Gas and oil factor

Some of the tensions involve competition for petroleum. It isn’t clear, however, how much the region holds and most published surveys suggest little evidence of substantial reserves apart from natural gas.

The overlapping territorial claims make exploratory drilling difficult.

The Philippines’ Malampaya and Camago fields, containing up to 4.4 trillion cubic feet (1.3 trillion cubic meters) of natural gas, are in waters claimed by China. Still, Manila has developed the fields and built a pipeline that already delivers gas that has become vital to its economy. But a Philippine plan to invite bids to explore two other areas has drawn strong Chinese protests and fears of escalating confrontations.  AP

Get Inquirer updates while on the go, add us on these apps:

Inquirer Viber

Disclaimer: The comments uploaded on this site do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of management and owner of We reserve the right to exclude comments that we deem to be inconsistent with our editorial standards.

  • Fil-dissident

    If war indeed comes, we can learn from history. Superpower vs. small i-ll equipt country(ex.Russia vs. Afghanistan, U.S.A vs. Vietnam) let them have their technology! As long as we refuse to surrender and fight we can bleed them dry in their economy, we have nothing to lose we are a poor country. If we can cut their oil supply passing thru West Philippine Sea we may have a chance to impede their growing empire. Die if we must but never be conquered!

    • reddfrog

      You’re looking at an outdated method of how countries fight wars. In the first place China does not seek to take the mainland Philippines. That argument aside, what the Chinese can do is hit Metro Manila with several missiles a day, targeting power grids and water supplies, and wait for the population to capitulate.

      • rem1911

        being such a “defeatist” does not help anyone. If you are Filipino, be proud of it, we may not perfect but it doesn’t mean that we are 2nd class citizens. If you do not have any good ideas of helping the country and will just blubber on how bad we are you better just go to China..good ridence

      • kingalmond

        As I have wrote before, China need not fire a single bullet if she wants to take the Philippines.Every year China can just send a few hundred thousand Chinese to the Philippines, marries Pilipinos and have a few kids, sent the kids to Chinese schools, in a few decades, there are more Chinese than Pilipinos.

      • Fil-dissident

        And when do you believe that they have already invaded your country? when they are already knocking at your door? Yeah they may disrupt our utilities etc. But i will not allow them to step in our soil without a fight. In your case you might already be waving the white flag and red carpet even before they take beach head. You’re only a small number of the population who will capitulate. Just like the “Makapilis” of WWII.

  • Bayabas San

    Apple, General Electric, Honeywell, Boeing, IBM, Ford, General Motors, Microsoft, Intel, etc….big companies that are dependent on China…….Those are the ones the U.S. will defend…and hence America will side with China against the Philippines.

    The Philippines has become a spoiler….a nuisance to the U.S. 

    Worse for Pinoys, the Philippines has just made an enemy out of China.

    The winner: the U.S. 
    The big loser: the Philippines.

    The next move? the U.S. will push and arm-twist the Philippines to modernize the AFP by buying weapon systems from them….the winner: U.S. workers….the big loser: Pinoy taxpayers.

    My suggestion: Talk to China. Avoid the temptation to a never-ending arms race in the Pacific.

    • mhertz

      How can you talk to a country w/out words of honor but only interested with greed of everything.. Is just like giving up yourself to an enemy. Common sense if this conflict involves international issues then bring it to the international court.  After all, we will never know if bilateral made by Philippines and China this corrupt officials from the PHilippines will only sold our country to China. It is probable that bribery and unjust negotiation can happen. This happened already from the past.

      • reddfrog

        Corrupt officials from the Philippines are the problem of the Philippines, not China. If you cannot negotiate with a foreign country because you think your officials are corrupt, is that China’s fault?

      • mhertz

        Partly yes, coz’ if there is no  bribe no corrupt. More or less the one could not exist w/o the other.

    • tigabulacanpo

      Talk to China?   I fully respect your opinion.. But talk about what?

    • Jackson

      you don’t talk to idiot like china


      China does not recognize any law of the land except their own selfish interest. Your suggestion is so stupid.

  • Russell Ariola

    Gumagawa lang ng rason ang China para pantawad. Sa malaon, sasabihin nila na sige atin na lang ang Panatg shoal, aatras na sila sa kundisyon na wag na nating pakealaman ang Paraceles islands at kanila na lang yun.

  • Lopez_Chaena

    PH doesn’t realize that China thinks the whole world is part of the Empire of the Sun. It is not just West Phil Sea that belongs to China it is the whole of South East Asia and the rest of the world, so China believes.

    • watot

      R u referring to China or Japan?

  • Bernard John H. Tagle

    China only sees military and economic power.
    IF you don’t have these powers, you will be stripped of what you have.

    Kaya tayo, strip din natin sila kung saan pwede.
    Tama na po ang bilihan ng produckto galing Tsina.
    Tangkilikin ang produktong Pinoy.

  • Manny

    yung recto bank dapat umpisahan na agad ang pagdrill para makuha na natural gas at oil dyan at hwag ng ipagsabi. malaman pa ng china pwestuhan yang recto bank. unahan nyo na bago pa mauhanan tayo ng greedy china. now na!

  • Leo Paras

    The immediate recall of Gregorio del Pilar from Scarborough was a demonstration of poor common sense if not of poor diplomatic strategy.  Del Pilar could have stayed there para magbawal without firing a single shot as a kind of paper tiger in a kind of psywar. E ano kung hindi paniwalaan, importante nandoon. Pero wala. Walang binatbat talaga. Iiyak iyak ngayon, humihingi ng tulong sa mga kapit bahay. Sa palagay ko, ngayong mas mahirap na ang situation, lalong walang magagawa. At dahil palpak hindi magtatagal panonoorin na lang ni Juan dela Cruz ang mga intsik sa kanilang pag-occupy at pag-develop sa Scarborough  

  • watot

    Bigyan ng bangka si ex gen garcia at ligot para mag bantay ron, they stole money enough to buy a small frigate

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


editors' picks




latest videos