Scarborough will not be Mischief Reef redux
If Filipinos could only unite to save the Scarborough Shoal from being invaded by China as Filipinos did to save Jessica Sanchez from being eliminated in American Idol, perhaps the Philippines can still manage to retain its ownership of the disputed shoal in the future. But just as Sanchez cannot rely on the American Idol celebrity judges to save her anymore, the Philippines also cannot rely on the United States to save its Scarborough Shoal.
This US policy was made clear at a high level Washington DC meeting on April 30 between the US — represented by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, and the Philippines — represented by Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert Del Rosario and Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin where the US explained that it will not take sides in the Scarborough Shoal dispute but will encourage both countries to seek a peaceful solution to the standoff at the shoal, now in its fourth week.
“The US supports a collaborative diplomatic process by all those involved for resolving the various disputes that they encounter. We oppose the threat or use of force by any party to advance its claims. And we will remain in close contact with our ally, the Philippines,” Secretary Clinton said.
The most recent “standoff” with China began on April 8, 2012 when eight Chinese fishing vessels set anchor in the Scarborough Shoal — known locally as the Panatag Shoal — where they were spotted by a Philippine Navy surveillance plane.
On April 10, 2012, officers of the Philippine navy ship BRP Gregorio del Pilar, a Hamilton class cutter obtained last year from the US, boarded the Chinese fishing vessels and discovered large amounts of illegally collected corals, giant clams, and live sharks.
China then dispatched surveillance ships to pressure the Philippines to free the detained Chinese fishing boats. While the Chinese fishermen were allowed to leave with their fishing vessels, the Philippine Navy confiscated their catch after determining that the “poaching of endangered marine resources is in violation of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES).”
Since the standoff began, the Chinese fisheries officers have remained in the Scarborough Shoal with 9 ships and with jets constantly patrolling the skies and occasionally swooping down to harass Filipino fishermen to coax them to leave what China calls its “Huangyan Island”.
The Philippines asserts that the Chinese have encroached on their Panatag Shoal which is part of the territorial sovereignty of the Philippines, being only 124 nautical miles off the nearest base point in Masinloc, Zambales province within the 200-mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ) under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Seas (UNCLOS) while China is more than 500 nautical miles away.
Major-Gen. Luo Yuan of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) contends that “it is the Philippines that violated China’s sovereignty over Huangyan Island by forcing an inspection of a Chinese fishing vessel. Therefore, action was required in order to respond to this unnecessary provocation to let both the Philippines and any potential future provocateur know that such actions will not be tolerated.”
In its April 25 editorial, the Global Times, published by China’s official People’s Daily, warned that “China should select the most arrogant provocateur, conduct comprehensive strikes, and exert pressure economically, politically and militarily. If the water overwhelms China’s knees, other countries will find their necks in the water.”
According to Gen. Yuan, in a confrontation with China, the Philippines cannot count on US support as it is “debatable if the U.S. would be willing to force a showdown with the world’s second largest economy on the Philippines’ account.”
At the April 30 Washington DC press conference with Hillary Clinton, Foreign Secretary Del Rosario outlined the country’s “three-track approach” to resolve its dispute with China: apolitical track focused on seeking the support of Asean member-nations; a legal track based on filing a dispute settlement case before the United National and UNCLOS; and a diplomatic track of engaging in regular consultations with China to defuse the tensions.
Singapore-based Philippine scholar Eduardo Araral explained why the first two tracks will not succeed. “On matters of core interest such as sovereignty in the South China Sea, Taiwan and Tibet, China has weak incentives to play by international rules and bind itself. Instead, bilateralism will be China’s dominant strategy. Divide and conquer will be China’s dominant strategy in dealing with its Southeast Asian neighbors and China has been playing this card on the issue of the South China Sea,” he explained.
A clue to knowing the future of the Scarborough Shoal may be found in the past, in how China dealt with a previous Philippine shoal.
In 1994, China illegally occupied the Philippines’ Panganiban Reef, which China calls the Meiji Reef — otherwise known internationally as the Mischief Reef — located about 130 miles from Palawan. The Chinese occupation of the reef occurred during the monsoon season when Philippine Navy ships were not patrolling the area.
After the Philippines discovered the trespass, it demanded that China leave immediately. But China refused and asserted its ownership of Mischief Reef. China assured the Philippines that it merely intended to build shelters on the reef for its fishermen. It was a lie. In 1999, China erected a four-story military garrison on the reef.
Although the Philippines dubbed the occupation of the Mischief Reef as China’s “creeping invasion,” the government chose not to attempt to dismantle the garrison on the reef which is within its 200 mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ) as the government feared that any precipitous act may provoke war with China, which it cannot possibly win.
China has calculated that without the means or the appetite for any military conflict with China, the Philippines will likely back down in its current conflict and bow to the inevitable, allowing China to build a garrison on the Scarborough Shoal.
But perhaps not.
On April 27, Senate President Juan Ponce-Enrile called on the Filipino people to rally behind President Noynoy Aquino in asserting the country’s sovereignty in the West Philippine Sea. “We have a good case over Scarborough against China, as well as the Reed Bank. I could not believe that a nation almost 1,000 nautical miles away from the Scarborough Shoal and the Reed Bank could overcome the rights of the nearest sovereign state and the rights of the Republic of the Philippines,” Enrile said.
Even the Philippines top Maoist, Jose Maria Sison, founder of the Communist Party of the Philippines, supports the Philippines’ claim to the Scarborough Shoal, agreeing that China’s historical claims over what it calls the South China Sea amount to an absurdity, “as this would be like Italy claiming … all areas previously occupied by the Roman Empire.”
“China must not violate Philippine national sovereignty and territorial integrity, the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea and the Code of Conduct it agreed to with the ASEAN,” Sison said.
The global Filipino community, which was not as large nor as organized in 1994 during the first Mischief Reef crisis, is now asserting itself in the dispute by asking the 12 million Filipinos in the Diaspora to rally in front of China’s embassies and consulates throughout the world on May 11. The global Filipinos want to show China that it cannot behave like a bully towards the Philippines which has citizens scattered throughout the world who can mobilize and galvanize world public opinion against China. [For more information, log on to USPGG.org.]
The Scarborough Shoal may not suffer the same fate as Mischief Reef after all.
“Ne’er shall invaders trample thy sacred shoal.”