Pushing the Shoal to the brink
Occupying the full top of the front page of the June 19 Philippine Daily Inquirer issue was a color photo of a Chinese soldier raising the five star red flag of China on top of the Scarborough Shoal while another soldier holds a surveying rod. The news article that accompanied the photo (“China ships stay in Panatag Shoal”) reported that “Beijing had not expressed any intention of withdrawing its service ships from Scarborough Shoal.”
This was China’s rebuff to the announcement of Pres. Benigno S. Aquino III the day before that he had ordered the two Philippine Navy vessels stationed in the Shoal — in a standoff with Chinese paramilitary vessels since April 10 — to return to port “consistent with our agreement with the Chinese government on the withdrawal of all vessels from the shoal’s lagoon to defuse tensions” in the area.”
It appears that after the Philippine ships left the Shoal, China’s ships remained and even occupied the Shoal as the Inquirer front page photo appeared to confirm. Once again, the Philippines had been snookered by China as previously occurred in 1994 when Philippine Navy ships left the Panganiban Reef — otherwise known as Mischief Reef — because of a typhoon, only to return to find China’s Navy occupying the reef — located only 87 miles from Palawan and almost 600 miles from China. China has since constructed a concrete fortress on Mischief Reef.
The stark front page photo of Chinese soldiers waving China’s flag on the Shoal prompted an emergency national telephone conference call on Monday June 18 by members of the US Pinoys for Good Governance (USP4GG) to discuss the implications of this new escalation of the conflict. What the group – which sponsored the May 11 global protests against China’s intrusion in the Scarborough Shoal – feared had apparently materialized – China had occupied the Shoal.
While members were deliberating the course of action to take in light of this grave development, frantic calls were made to Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) officials to verify whether China had actually seized control of the Shoal. But no verification was obtained before the conference call meeting ended so another conference call was set for the next night to confirm Chinese occupation of the Shoal.
The next day, Philippine Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin warned that if China did not withdraw its ships from the Shoal, then he would order the return to the Shoal of Philippine Navy ships.
This raised the spectre of the 1988 incident when Vietnam Navy sailors sought to restore the flag of Vietnam on Johnson Reef in the Paracel Islands off Vietnam. When the Chinese flag was removed, the Chinese Navy fired on the unarmed Vietnamese sailors on the shoal and mowed down all 77 of them. Video footage of the massacre was filmed by the Chinese Navy and aired in China to show the resolve of the mighty Chinese People’s Liberation Navy.
Could this bloody Vietnam scenario be repeated in the Scarborough Shoal?
Not according to Max Boot. In his June 24, 2012 article which appeared in the Wall Street Journal (“China Starts to Claim the Seas”), Boot asserts that “in fact China is the classic bully with a glass jaw.”
Boot cites the example of the tiny Pacific Island of Palau with a population of just 20,000. “In late March, at virtually the same time that the Scarborough Shoal standoff was beginning,” Boot writes, “a Chinese fishing vessel illegally entered Palau’s waters. When the poachers ignored repeated demands that they leave an area designated as a shark sanctuary, police from Palau’s Fish and Wildlife Division opened fire, trying to sink the offending vessel.”
“The result: one fisherman dead and 25 captured. A couple of weeks later, under the terms of a deal with China, the poachers were fined $1,000 each and flown back home. The Chinese must have been furious, but their diplomat on the scene had nothing to say except “it is a good outcome.”
As speculation mounted about whether China would react as it did in Vietnam in 1988 or as it did in Palau in April of 2012, news came from DFA officials that the photo used on the front page of the Inquirer was taken 10 years ago and was posted on the China Embassy website. China has not physically occupied the Shoal and planted its flag there, at least not yet.
On June 22, members of the US Pinoys for Good Governance joined members of the US Vietnamese community in mounting a demonstration in front of the United Nations building in New York to protest China’s “creeping invasion” of their countries. Leaders of the two communities announced that they were jointly launching a nationwide boycott of China-made products.
According to Eric Lachica of USP4GG, “if even one million of us, out of the four million Filipinos in the US, stop buying Chinese products or goods, we will create a huge financial penalty on China.”
While an economic boycott of China primarily directed at Walmart stores was being launched in the US, the Philippine Daily Inquirer reported on June 25 that “a Chinese vessel last week rammed a Philippine fishing boat north of the disputed Scarborough Shoal in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea), killing a Filipino fisherman and leaving four others missing.”
The article reported that the ramming of the Philippine boat causing the death of 32-year old Bolinao fisherman Christopher Carbonel “may have been the first casualty in the dispute between China and the Philippines over Scarborough Shoal.” Two days earlier, the state-owned China News Agency (CNA) reported on Saturday that a Chinese official had ordered navy ships to target “Filipino vessels that hang around” Scarborough Shoal “and don’t leave.”
The Inquirer further reported: “The order of Rear Adm. Yin Zhuo, director of the People’s Liberation Army Navy’s (PLAN) Information Expert Committee, came as an answer to President Benigno Aquino’s statement on Wednesday that he would order Philippine vessels back to the shoal if air surveillance found China still had vessels there.”
The CNA reported Admiral Yin as saying Chinese naval troops should board and search Philippine government ships and private fishing vessels. In doing so, Yin said, Chinese troops “must try to maintain restraint, not force, not hurt people” when going after Philippine ships found in waters near Scarborough Shoal. But he affirmed to Communist Party People’s Daily that China’s Navy would not hesitate to use deadly force against its enemies.
The following day, the Philippine Coast Guard announced that a Hong Kong-registered commercial ship, the Peach Mountain, was most likely the vessel that rammed a Philippine fishing boat in the West Philippine Sea on June 20, killing a Filipino fisherman and leaving four others missing.
But whether it was an official government ship or a commercial vessel, the question remains: was the ramming of the Philippine fishing boat an accident?
Not according to Ted Laguatan. “The collision was not accidental,” he wrote.. “It is a big wide ocean out there and for small boats, it’s practically impossible to have collisions. Also, if it was accidental, the Chinese would have attempted to save the Filipino fisherman. This was intentional to provoke the Philippines and see what kind of capability and resolve the Philippines has in holding on to its territories and see also how America will react.”
“Malacanang and DFA will naturally say it was accidental because of the implications involved if they tell the people it’s intentional. It means a direct confrontation with China which of course will blatantly just confirm our military weakness and incapability to defend,” Ted wrote.
At this point, China is not yet ready to give Admiral Yin the order he craves to “use deadly force” against the Philippines. There is too much uncertainty about what the US response will be to such an attack. China is likely to announce that it is pulling its paramilitary vessels away from the lagoon while still remaining in the vicinity of the Shoal to protect the fishing vessels there. It will also do without openly admitting that it is part of the agreement negotiated with the Philippines that Sec. Del Rosario had previously announced.
In its May 28, 2012 editorial, the Nation magazine sounded this ominous warning: “If the current tension continues in South China Sea, especially between the Philippines and China, it could lead to an all-out war. This is not an alarmist’s warning but a real concern. With poisonous rhetoric and growing tension, there is a possibility that conflicting parties would cross the line. This could be a result of miscalculation.”
The temperatures in the Shoal are rising and a serious miscalculation may easily push it to a boiling point.