DISPUTE BETWEEN CHINA AND THE PHILIPPINES OVER THE SPRATLY ISLANDS AND SOUTH CHINA SEA

PHILIPPINES, CHINA, THE SPRATLY ISLANDS AND THE SOUTH CHINA SEA

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View of South China Sea
The Philippines calls the South China Sea the West Philippine Sea. Parts of the Spratly Islands---which the Philippines calls Kalayaan, or freedom---lie just over 100 miles from the Philippines but are more than 1,000 miles from China. The Philippines has lead the effort to unite Southeast Asian nations against what it calls China’s illegal “grab” of most of the South China Sea.

In the South China Sea the Philippines controls five tiny islands, two reefs and two sandbars. Pagasa is a Philippine-controlled island in the Spratlys with a population of 50 and a small garrison. China accused the residents of the island of trespassing on Chinese turf. Although tiny and a large part of it made up of a single gravel airstrip, the island is the biggest in a cluster that the Philippines claims as it own and calls Kalayaan group of islands.

The Philippines has proposed that the territorial dispute be resolved through the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea. It also has strengthened military ties with the United States---which recently unveiled a new defense strategy that places greater emphasis on Asia---through such measures as conducting joint military exercises.

Tensions Between the Philippines and China in the South China Sea Rise in 2011

China has been particularly keen to thwart efforts by the Philippines and others to exploit resources it wants for itself. The Philippines claims Chinese naval vessels have fired warning volleys at Filipino fishermen, harassed an oil exploration vessel and put up markers on Philippine waters in 2011 year after China outlined its "9-dash claim" to the sea in 2009.

In the spring of 2011 Chinese naval vessels harassed a seismic survey ship working for Forum Energy, a British firm looking for oil under contract with the Philippines. After two days of near-collisions, the Philippines government sent out a small military plane to fly over the area.”Fortunately, the Chinese withdrew,” Lt. Gen. Juancho Sabban, the commander of Philippine military forces said. A new round of surveys is due to start early next year, setting up another potential confrontation.

Andrew Higgins wrote in the Washington Post, “At his seafront headquarters, Sabban showed off a modest trophy of his efforts to assert Philippine sovereignty: a small fiberglass boat and three Yamaha outboard motors. His men seized the vessel and its Chinese crew of six in March off the southern coast of Palawan...Interviewed in a Puerto Princesa jail, the Chinese crewmen said they’d set out from the Chinese island of Hainan to hunt for fish and got lost after their navigation equipment failed. They declined to identify their boat’s owner. Sabban doubts this story and thinks they were part of a bigger Chinese flotilla as their tiny craft could not have sailed so far on its own. What they were up to, though, isn’t clear. [Source: Andrew Higgins, Washington Post, September 17 2011]

Philippines-China Spratly Island Dispute in 2011

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Panuba
Filipino officials said that Chinese forces had intruded into Philippines-claimed areas around the Spratly Islands six times between February and June 2011, firing shots at least once at Filipino fishermen. China denied the allegation. Beijing said it would use violence only when attacked. In February, Manila accused Chinese naval ships of harassing an exploration ship near Reed Bank, an area 80 miles (130 kilometers) west of Palawan province. In March 2011, the Philippines scrambled military aircrafts after Chinese patrol boats harassed a Filipino oil exploration vessel in the South China Sea. In May. The Philippines said the Chinese Navy erected iron poles and placed a buoy on a reef in the Spratly Islands.

According to AP, Philippines President Benigno Aquino III insisted that the Philippines won’t be bullied by China in a territorial spat over the Spratly Islands and that Beijing should stop intruding into waters claimed by Manila. Aquino also said in an interview with The Associated Press that a government-backed mission to scout Philippine-claimed waters for oil and gas had turned up “very good” prospects, though he declined to elaborate. He said the Philippines reserved the right to explore its waters despite China’s rival claims. “The overall strategy, we’re not going to engage in an arms race with them. We are not going to escalate the tensions there but we do have to protect our rights,” Aquino said.

China earlier demanded that the Philippines halt any oil exploration there without Beijing’s permission. The Chinese ambassador in Manila said, however, that China was open to joint exploration with other countries. Aqino’s office said it wads renaming the South China Sea the “West Philippine Sea.” “We will not be pushed around because we are a tiny state compared with theirs,” Aquino said. “We think we have very solid grounds to say “do not intrude into our territory” and that is not a source of dispute or should not be a source of dispute,” the President said. “We will continue with dialogues, but I think, for our internal affairs, we don’t have to ask anybody else’s permission.”

The Philippines already has protested over six or seven incidents involving alleged Chinese intrusion into waters that Manila says belongs to it because they lie within its 200-mile (320-kilometer) exclusive economic zone that is covered by the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.

The UK-based Forum Energy PLC, which has a contract with the Philippines government to explore the Reed Bank, has announced that it has completed seismic tests in the area and will process the data to identify the best location for drilling appraisal wells. Forum Energy Robin Nicholson said in a statement in March that his company is looking forward “to making further investments into the project.” The company said that in 2006, a seismic survey in an area in the Reed Bank indicated it contained 3.4 trillion cubic feet of gas.

In June and July 2011, the Philippines and the United States staged joint naval drills---known as “Cooperation Afloat Readiness Training” (CARAT)---near the disputed Spratlys islands in the South China Sea. US, Philippines start navy drills. The United States pledged its "enduring commitment" to helping the Philippines, as the longtime allies began naval exercises amid a simmering maritime row with China. The U.S. sent two state-of-the-art US missile destroyers to the 11-days military exercise but emphasised the event was an annual one aimed at deepening defence ties, and not linked to the rising concern in Manila about allegedly aggressive Chinese actions in the strategic and potentially resource-rich South China Sea.[Source: AFP, June 28, 2011]

Talks Between the Philippines and China Over the South China Sea

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U.S. ships operate in formation
in the South China Sea
In July 2011, the Philippines and China have agreed not to let disputes in the South China Sea affect friendly relations. After Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario and Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi held talks in Beijing the two countries issued a joint statement that read: “The two sides reaffirmed their commitments to respect and abide by the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea...Both ministers exchanged views on the maritime disputes and agreed not to let the maritime disputes affect the broader picture of friendship and cooperation between the two countries.” Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping described the meeting as “productive”.

In August 2011, Philippines President Benigno Aquino met his Chinese counterpart, Hu Jintao, during a four-day visit to Beijing. The two leaders agreed on the need for a binding code of conduct in the sea. Aquino told Hu of his wish that the territorial dispute be settled with a “regional” solution. “President Aquino initiated (the discussion on the West Philippine Sea) and he mentioned that we have differences but these differences should not deter us from moving forward. The President also mentioned the position of the Philippine government or the Philippine side, because this is a regional problem, it requires a regional solution,” a Philippines government spokesman said. “On the side of the Chinese, they also mentioned that they continue to hold their consistent position that it should be resolved peacefully and they would encourage that the region be developed or the South China Sea be developed as a sea of friendship, peace and cooperation. So both sides were very positive in addressing the issue in the South China Sea,” he added.

Philippines Energy Projects in the South China Sea

China has not objected to a big existing natural gas field off Palawan developed by a state-owned Philippine company, Shell and Chevron but has demanded that Manila stay away from potential energy wealth in the nearby Spratlys. The Department of Energy in Manila is nonetheless now taking bids for 15 new offshore exploration blocks, three of them in or near contested waters.

The Malampaya gas field is to the east of Palawan island in an area of the South China Sea not claimed by China. The $4.5 billion Malampaya project, estimated to hold 2.7 trillion cubic feet of natural gas and 65 million barrels of condensate, is operated by Shell Philippine Exploration (RDSa.L: Quote), Chevron Philippines and state-owned PNOC Exploration Corp .

In June 2011, the Philippines said it expected to award next year 15 contracts for oil and gas explorations requiring total investments of at least $7.5 billion, most of them in the Palawan and Sulu Sea areas. The Philippines claims it has the sovereign right to explore for oil and gas deposits on its own in the sea's Reed Bank section. The Philippine energy department has announced plans to auction off areas of the South China Sea for oil exploration, despite worsening territorial rows with China, which prefers bilateral talks on the disputes.

Ismael Ocampo, the department’s director of energy resource development for the Philippines, told the Washington Post he’d like CNOOC to make a bid as that would mean Beijing acknowledges Philippine jurisdiction. But, with that unlikely to happen, he’d prefer a big American firm as “they have an armada of battleships” behind them.

The Filipino plan drew an angry response from China's official media, which accused the Philippines of violating a 2002 declaration between China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations for self-restraint on the dispute. A China Daily editorial on Friday pointedly singled out the Philippines as it said the Chinese government would not allow its territory to be nibbled away. "There could well be a high price to pay for any misjudgment on the South China Sea issue by countries like the Philippines," it said.

Philippines Claims China Is Threat to Peace in Southeast Asia

In August 2011, AFP reported that Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario warned that China's bold claims of control over the South China Sea are one of the biggest threats to peace in Southeast Asia, The threat concerns not only the rival claimants to the hotly contested area, but also all other entities using the waters for shipping, he said in a speech at a Manila university.

"If Philippine sovereign rights can be denigrated by this baseless claim, many countries should begin to contemplate the potential threat to freedom of navigation in the South China Sea," he said. "The imperative to speak frankly was borne out of an enormous sense of exigency and urgency... to one of the greatest threats to the stability of our progressive Southeast Asian neighbourhood."

Del Rosario repeated calls for UN arbitration on the disputes and for all claimants to jointly develop disputed sections, while asserting Manila's sovereign right to explore for oil and gas deposits on its own in the sea's Reed Bank section.

Filipino Lawmakers Visit Disputed Island

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Ship deployed from USS Tortuga
In July 2011. AP reported, a group of Filipino lawmakers flew to Pag-asa Island, the Philippine-occupied island in the South China Sea to assert their country's claim to the region in defiance of China's protest that the visit threatens regional stability. Even though the daylong visit upset China, a senior Chinese diplomat at a meeting of Asian security officials in Bali, Indonesia, said that his country has agreed to draft guidelines for behavior in the disputed region with the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations. [Source: Jim Gomez Associated Press, July 20, 2011]


The mission to Pagasa Island was organized by a left-wing legislator, Walden Bello, who, after years of criticizing the United States, now worries more about China. “Just look at their maps and you say: “My God, how do they come up with these claims?”---Bello said. He sponsored a motion in congress for the South China Sea to be called the West Philippine Sea.

Dozens of Filipino troops and sunburned villagers welcomed the four-member congressional delegation on Pag-asa Island. "This is a historic moment for the congressional delegation. This is Philippine territory," Bello told a small crowd of residents, government officials and troops who greeted him in the intense tropical heat.

Bello carried two new Philippine flags for the island. He and the others sang their national anthem during a flag-raising ceremony in front of a small one-story town hall on the 91-acre (37-hectare) island, which also has a military camp and a small civilian community of about 60 people. Pag-asa, internationally called Tithu Island, lies in the South China Sea about 300 miles (480 kilometers) west of the western Philippine province of Palawan. Kalayaan municipality was established in 1978.

Chinese Embassy spokesman Ethan Sun said Tuesday that China would relay its "great concern" to the Philippine government over the lawmakers' trip. He said it goes against the spirit of a 2002 accord between China and ASEAN, which is nonbinding. The trip "serves no purpose but to undermine peace and stability in the region and sabotage China-Philippine relationship," Sun said in a statement.

Bello said that the trip, which his party calls a "sovereignty mission," aims at peacefully asserting the Philippines' claim to Pag-asa and surrounding territory."We come in peace," he said in a speech on the island. "We support a diplomatic solution, but let there be no doubt in anybody's mind, in any foreign power's mind that if they dare to eject us from Pag-asa, if they dare to eject us from our rightful territories, Filipinos will not take that sitting down. Filipinos are born to resist aggression. Filipinos are willing to die for their soil."

Troop Shelter, a Philippine Beauty Contest and the Spratly Islands

Andrew Higgins wrote in the Washington Post: “Alarm over China’s intentions even seeped into a recent beauty pageant. The winner of this year’s “Miss Palawan” contest was 18-year-old Sarah Sopio Osorio, an accounting student who entered as the representative for Kalayaan, as the Philippines calls the Spratlys. She won after a spirited speech in favor of Philippine claims. [Source: Andrew Higgins, Washington Post, September 17 2011]

Osorio doesn’t live in Kalayaan but does visit for a month each year with her parents, who work in the local government of Pagasa island. The trip takes three days by boat from Puerto Princesa: “I vomit all the way,” the beauty queen said. Nonetheless, she says, the Philippines must hang on to its territory against “greedy” Chinese demands. She’s in no doubt about what’s fueling China’s appetites: “Oil is the only reason. That is it.”

In July 2011, the Philippine Star newspaper report that the Philippine navy would soon complete a shelter to "protect troops guarding and securing the country's maritime domain" on an island claimed by both countries. The shell-like structure the navy began building in May is on an island called Patag by the Philippines and Feixin by China -- part of the Spratlys chain which is also wholly or partially claimed by Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia and Taiwan.

In August 2011, the Chinese media on Friday warned the Philippines against building up its military presence in disputed areas of the South China Sea, amid a deepening rift between the two countries. A strongly worded editorial in the China Daily accused Manila of infringing "China's territorial integrity" and said the Philippines could pay "a high price" for misjudging the issue.

The Philippines was "not taking seriously" an agreement struck by Beijing and Association of Southeast Asian Nations members in Indonesia last month "to solve the maritime disputes in peace", the English language newspaper said. The editorial came after the Philippine Star’s report that the troop shelter. "What Manila has done not only constitutes an infringement of China's territorial integrity but also runs counter to ASEAN's stance and the spirit of the guidelines," for implementing ASEAN's 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea. "There could well be a high price to pay for any misjudgment on the South China Sea issue by countries like the Philippines," the editorial said.

Philippines and former American Ships and Radar Stations in South China Sea

In September 2011, Reuters reported, the Philippines said it will buy helicopters and build radar stations to strengthen its defence of oil and gas assets located near an area of the South China Sea also claimed by China. Budget Secretary Florencio Abad said in a statement 4.95 billion pesos ($117 million) of royalties from the Malampaya gas field off Palawan would fund the military upgrade.

"(It) will fund necessary capability requirements of the Armed Forces of the Philippines in its territorial defence operations, including providing a strong security perimeter for the Malampaya Natural Gas and Power Project," Abad said. Abad said the fund would allow the air force and navy to purchase six new search-and-rescue and patrol helicopters to guard Malampaya and other oil-and-gas exploration areas in the Reed Bank and Sulu Sea.

The air force will develop a small helicopter base on Palawan, and the navy will set up four coastal radar stations to monitor ship traffic and help prevent intrusions into the country's exclusive economic zones, Abad said.

Washington, a long-time ally of the Philippines and wary of China's military build-up, has promised to provide secure communications and surveillance equipment to four coast watch stations that will track surface movements in disputed areas in the sea. Washington has a 20-year-old mutual-defense treaty with Manila .

In April 2011the Philippines bought what is now its navy’s biggest vessel: a 40-year-old former U.S. Coast Guard ship. Washington threw in a new weapons system for free. About $10 million had been spent on refurbishing the Hamilton-class navy frigate. Manila may get two more Hamilton-class ships by early 2012. The new vessel’s main job will be helping Philippines’s Western Command boost patrols off the coast of Palawan, a narrow, 265-mile-long island that juts into the South China Sea.

Some politicians even want the United States to reestablish military bases in the Philippines---20 years after Manila, in a burst of nationalist ardor at a time when few here paid much attention to China, booted out the U.S. Navy and Air Force. “We need the U.S. to come back. The U.S. needs to come back, too,” said James “Bong” Gordon Jr. , the mayor of Olongapo, the town adjoining Subic Bay, which until 2001 housed a sprawling U.S. naval base. Lt. Gen.Sabban and Mitra, Palawan’s governor, scoff at the idea of the United States setting up again in Subic Bay but say it should take a look at Palawan, much closer to possible flash points in the Spratlys.

China has used arcane issues of international law and ancient shards of pottery as evidence of its “indisputable sovereignty” over the South China Sea. Some date the dispute back to 1947, when the doomed Chinese government of Chiang Kai-shek issued a crude map with 11 dashes marking as Chinese almost the entire 1.3 million-square-mile waterway. The Communist Party toppled Chiang but kept his map and his expansive claims, though it trimmed a couple of dashes.

China and the Philippine Face Off Over Scarborough Shoal in April 2012

Early in 2012 China and the Philippines were involved in a month-long standoff at Scarborough Shoal, 220 kilometers west of the main Philippine island of Luzon. According to the Japanese newspaper the Yomiuri Shimbun: “The confrontation started April 10 when a Philippine Navy warship inspected Chinese fishing vessels at Scarborough Shoal, which is called Huangyan Island in China. Beijing immediately responded by sending patrol ships to the area. The standoff lasted about a month. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, May 24, 2012]

Beijing and Manila both claim sovereignty over Scarborough Shoal---an uninhabited, horseshoe-shaped shoal of coral reefs and islets, which lies more than 800 kilometers from the Chinese mainland and 230 kilometers off the northern coast of the Philippines, well within a 200-nautical-mile “exclusive economic zone” provided for by the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea.

Andrew Higgins wrote in the Washington Post, Although rich in fish and long used as a shelter by Chinese and Philippine fishermen, Scarborough Shoal has no major economic or strategic value. But it has acquired great significance for both countries as a test case for issues of sovereignty that will help determine who gets to exploit potentially large reserves of natural gas and oil in other contested areas of the South China Sea. China insists that the shoal has been part of its territory since at least the 13th century and points to old maps that mark it as Chinese. For a while, it looked as if the quarrel could tip into armed conflict between Asia’s most potent military power and one of its puniest. [Source: Andrew Higgins, Washington Post, June 10, 2012]

China last year spent $129 billion on its armed forces, 58 times as much as the Philippines, according to data compiled by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. The flagship of Manila’s navy, the boat that intercepted the Chinese fishermen, is a 45-year-old hand-me-down from the U.S. Coast Guard. Manila does have one potent asset: a 1951 mutual defense treaty with Washington that the Philippines believes puts the world’s most powerful navy on its side. The United States has a policy of not taking a position on territorial disputes in the South China Sea and has been ambiguous about what it would do in the event of a conflict. President Benigno Aquino III visited the State Department and the White House to press for clarity on U.S. intentions. [Ibid]

The Philippines insisted the Chinese fishing vessels were inside the Philippines EEZ near Scarborough Shoal and were poaching. The Chinese ships prevented the Philippine navy from detaining Chinese fishermen. There were initially eight Chinese fishing boats seen in the area, but the number increased to 12 at one point, said Lieutenant General Anthony Alcantara, the regional military commander. The standoff broke up after several weeks without a resolution of the underlying legal issues. Separately, the Philippines decided to begin drilling for natural gas in the Reed Bank near its Palawan Island, a program to which China objects.

Scarborough Shoal Stand-Off Winds Down

After the Chinese ships departed AP reported: “The last five Chinese fishing boats at the centre of a dangerous impasse between China and the Philippines have left a disputed shoal in the South China Sea, officials said. Their departure diffused the standoff but also embarrassed the Philippines, which had insisted on confiscating the fishermen’s alleged illegal catch of endangered giant clams, corals and live sharks. [Source: AP, April 14, 2012]

Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario confirmed that the Chinese fishing boats departed from Scarborough Shoal, but that China sent back one of its surveillance ships to the shoal, bringing to two the number of vessels facing off a Philippine coast guard frigate. He also accused China of flying an aircraft near the Philippine frigate, and said that a “white Chinese ship harassed a Philippine-registered vessel with nine French nationals, which has been conducting archaeological surveys.” “It appears there is an element that is lacking in our negotiations. I seek a deeper element of trust from our Chinese friends,” del Rosario said. He said that his meeting with Chinese Ambassador Ma Keqing night “resulted in a stalemate,” with both sides insisting that the other nation’s ship be the first to leave the area. Chinese surveillance ships continued to remain on the area of Scarborough Shoal after the fishing boats left.

In May 2011, the BBC reported: “Several hundred protesters waved flags and placards at the Chinese embassy in Manila, calling for China to withdraw its ships from a South China Sea shoal. The Philippines deployed more than 100 police near the Chinese Consular Office, said local media, amid rising tension over the month-long row. "Our protest is directed at the overbearing actions and stance of the government in Beijing, which behaves like an arrogant overlord, even in the homes of its neighbours," rally organiser Loida Nicholas Lewis was quoted as saying by AFP news agency.[Source: BBC, May 11, 2012]

Protesters sang the Philippine national anthem, and carried placards that read: "China stop bullying the Philippines", "Make Peace Not War", and "China: Scarborough Shoal Today, Tomorrow the World?" One of the organisers seized a microphone and compared the Philippine-China row to a fight between David and Goliath. 'David won': she shouted triumphantly to much applause. In an advisory, the Chinese embassy in Manila had advised its citizens to stay off the streets. Meanwhile, China also deployed police outside the Philippine embassy in Beijing, but only a handful of protesters were reported to be there. And still, a number of Chinese and Philippine fishery and coastguard ships remained stationed at Scarborugh shoal, with both sides refusing to withdraw. A few days the stand-off was regarded as over. [Ibid]

China and the Philippine Face Off Over Half Moon Shoal in July 2012

In July 2012, the Chinese navy said that one of its frigates had run aground on Half Moon Shoal---which is in the Philippine EEZ about 200 kilometers miles off the western Philippine island of Palawan and about 500 kilometers south of Scarborough Moon Shoal” after reportedly shooing away Filipino fishermen. The Philippines sent two of its vessels and reconnaissance aircraft to the area. Beijing said its vessel had been on a routine patrol. [Ibid]

Reuters reported: “China said it was conducting a rescue mission and the Philippines said it was sending "assets" to the area to investigate and provide assistance if needed. "That's a very strategic location to strengthen their claim over the Reed Bank, they are getting closer to our territory, putting one foot inside our fence," one military official told Reuters. [Ibid]

After the Chinese frigate that ran aground left, Manuel Mogato and Ben Blanchard of Reuters wrote: A Chinese frigate grounded in disputed waters close to the Philippines was refloated and headed back home, averting a possible standoff with the Philippines navy amid rising tensions in the strategically key South China Sea. [Source: Manuel Mogato and Ben Blanchard, Reuters, July 15, 2012]

"At about 5 a.m. on July 15, the frigate which had run aground in waters near Half Moon Shoal successfully extricated itself with the help of a rescue team," China's defense ministry said in a statement. "The bow has sustained light damage and everybody on board is safe. Its return to port is being organized. The incident caused no maritime pollution," the statement added, without providing further details. The Philippines defense ministry confirmed the grounded vessel and about six other Chinese ships spotted in the area had left. [Ibid]

Manila says Half Moon Shoal falls well within its 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone, as recognized by international law. "The incident in Hasa-Hasa shoal makes us nervous," Rommel Banlaoii, executive director of Philippine Institute for Peace, Violence and Terrorism Research, told Reuters, referring to Half Moon shoal in the Spratlys. "I think what happened there was an accident, but we don't want such accident happening again because it could trigger something that all claimant states do not want to happen there."

In July 2012, AFP and Reuters reported: “Philippine President Benigno Aquino III refused to budge on the Philippines’ territorial dispute with China, asking Beijing to respect Manila’s rights in the South China Sea and announcing plans to upgrade military capabilities. Addressing a joint session of the Philippine Congress for the third time since his election in 2010, Aquino asked the Philippine people to unite behind his government’s efforts to resolve the dispute peacefully. “If someone enters your yard and told you he owns it, will you allow that?” Aquino asked. “It’s not right to give away what is rightfully ours. And so I ask for solidarity from our people regarding this issue. Let us speak with one voice.” “It’s not too much to ask the other side to respect our rights just as we respected their rights,” Aquino said, adding that as the nation’s leader: “I must uphold the law of the land.” [Source: AFP and Reuters, July 24, 2012]

Tactics used by the Philippines in Its Stand-Off with China

James Holmes wrote in Foreign Policy: In early April, the Philippine Navy flagship Gregorio del Pilar discovered Chinese fishing boats at the shoal, a group of rocks enclosing a lagoon some 120 nautical miles west of the Philippine island of Luzon. Boarding parties found coral, giant clams, and live sharks on board the boats and prepared to arrest their crews for poaching in Philippine-claimed waters. Within 48 hours, ships from China Maritime Surveillance -- a nonmilitary agency entrusted with enforcing jurisdiction in Chinese-claimed waters -- arrived on the scene and interposed themselves between the Gregorio del Pilar and the alleged poachers. [Source: James Holmes , Foreign Policy May 15, 2012]

Manila quickly withdrew its frigate and replaced it with an unarmed Philippine Coast Guard search-and-rescue ship, evidently foreseeing a diplomatic debacle (imagine the political furor should photos emerge of a Philippine warship with civilian Chinese ships under its guns). Stalemate between nonmilitary ships ensued. Although neither government flinched from its claim to the atoll and surrounding waters, both disarmed their presence. [Ibid]

To understand the military mismatch between China and the Philippines, look no further than the Gregorio del Pilar itself. The warship -- the pride of the Philippine Navy -- is a retired, 1960s-vintage U.S. Coast Guard cutter grandiosely rebranded as a frigate. The Philippines' previous flagship, an old U.S. Navy destroyer escort, fought in World War II. Juxtapose these relics against the increasingly modern Chinese Navy that keeps U.S. and allied naval commanders up nights. [Ibid]

By relying on coast guard-like vessels, Beijing reaffirms the legal boilerplate that it holds "indisputable sovereignty" over most of the South China Sea -- including the waters lapping against Scarborough Shoal. Its ships, according to this narrative, are simply enforcing domestic law in waters that have belonged to China since antiquity. And indeed, last week the official China Daily reported that Beijing will add 36 more nonmilitary vessels to its fleet by next year. But Beijing's victory is far from certain. Manila seems to be employing what could be called a Fabian strategy -- one premised on delay, diplomatic maneuver, and righting military imbalances. The Philippines stands no chance of winning in combat. It may win a peacetime confrontation. [Ibid]

Was the Philippines Inspired by Tactics of 3rd-Century B.C. Roman Dictator

James Holmes wrote in Foreign Policy: Quintus Fabius lives. And the third-century B.C. Roman dictator celebrated as Fabius "the Delayer" seems to be advising Philippine President Benigno Aquino III on strategy at Scarborough Shoal, where Philippine and Chinese ships have faced off for more than a month. [Source: James Holmes , Foreign Policy May 15, 2012]

Historians of classical antiquity considered Fabius the paragon of guileful, patient military statecraft. Polybius, a Greek historian of Roman imperialism, tells the tale expertly. As the Carthaginian general Hannibal's vastly superior army rampaged through Italy, Fabius assumed personal command of Roman forces and encamped near the foe. Upon learning that the legions were nearby, Hannibal resolved to "terrify the enemy by promptly attacking," Polybius writes. [Ibid]

The Roman riposte: nothing. Fabius grasped his army's "manifest inferiority." He "made up his mind to incur no danger and not to risk a battle" against battle-hardened Carthaginians, according to Polybius. And Rome was fighting on home turf. Its armies were beneficiaries of an "inexhaustible supply of provisions and of men." He could convert these assets into superior military might -- eventually. [Ibid]

Fabius's story reads like a parable about contending strategic paradigms. Soldiers typically covet decisive engagements that yield clear results along with renown for the victors. That means offense. But Fabius was an atypical, defensive-minded soldier. Rather than risk everything in offensive actions, he mastered the art of lurking near superior enemy forces yet shunning decisive battle, waiting and watching until ideal circumstances arose. Only then, when the risk was low and the likely gains high, would he undertake major combat.

The Fabian precedent does not fit precisely with today's Sino-Philippine deadlock. The mismatch between Carthaginian and Roman forces was far narrower than the chasm separating the Philippine from the Chinese military. Rome wasn't dependent on outside intervention. Over time, Fabius could transform latent into usable military power, marshaling the Italian peninsula's resources to redress the force imbalance. [Ibid]

Philippine leaders have no such luxury. Nevertheless, they evidently believe time is on their side -- and they could be right. Great powers boast obvious material advantages when confronting lesser opponents. But weak powers can stall for time, opening up new strategic vistas. With an adequate respite, they can marshal additional resources, seek help from powerful allies, or try to undercut the stronger contender's advantages. [Ibid]

Sure enough, Manila has done what the weak do. Aquino's government has appealed to law and justice while courting allies. The leadership has entreated Beijing to submit the quarrel to the Law of the Sea Tribunal. And it has requested American support under the 1951 U.S.-Philippine Mutual Defense Treaty, which obliges the United States and the Philippines to "act to meet the common dangers" of "an armed attack" on either party's territory or armed forces. [Ibid]

Outcome of Philippines-China Standoff in Contextual and Historical Terms

James Holmes wrote in Foreign Policy: “For its part, Beijing appears visibly flummoxed by the Filipinos' refusal to bow to overwhelming physical might. China seems to be waging "war by algebra" in the South China Sea, and expecting outmatched neighbors to abide by that austere mathematical logic. Coined by Prussian theorist Carl von Clausewitz, it's the idea that war can be drained of its dark passions under certain circumstances. If dispassionate war occurred, "one would never really need to use the physical impact of the fighting forces -- comparative figures of their strength would be enough." [Source: James Holmes , Foreign Policy May 15, 2012]

When a controversy erupted, diplomats and soldiers would in effect compare their militaries' write-ups in Jane's Fighting Ships or the IISS Military Balance. Whoever sported the biggest, most capable, most deployable military would win without ever firing a shot -- simply because everyone would know who would have won a shooting war. That's peacetime coercion. [Ibid]

But even Clausewitz appeared to view war-by-algebra as a largely artificial construct, doubting that diplomacy and war could be rid of the passions that suffuse competition. One would think China -- which has started out as the lesser belligerent in almost every war since the 19th-century Opium Wars, yet oftentimes prevailed through popular passions, patience, and sheer hardheadedness -- would instantly recognize the motives behind Philippine actions. Not so, it appears. [Ibid]

Aquino & Co. shouldn't take too much comfort in Chinese myopia: Perseverance and delay on their part aren't enough. If Manila cannot muster enough resources to win a war of perceptions, it must attract outside help -- particularly from the United States, which has other interests in Southeast Asia apart from honoring its defense treaty with the Philippines. Freedom of navigation ranks high on Washington's priorities list, as does avoiding needlessly affronting a major trading partner that also happens to be a great power on the rise. [Ibid]

While the United States would doubtless defend Philippine soil, offshore waters or uninhabitable territory like Scarborough Shoal is another question. Nor is it clear what the lightly armed U.S. Navy vessels that anchor the American presence in Southeast Asia would contribute during a showdown with heavy Chinese naval forces. Effective U.S. support for the Philippines is scarcely a foregone conclusion -- and Manila's Fabian gambit cannot succeed without it. [Ibid]

But the longer an impasse with a sorely outclassed rival drags on unresolved, the more the stronger antagonist starts looking both bullying and irresolute -- the worst possible outcome in power-politics terms. Although militarily, China can do what it wants at Scarborough Shoal, the controversy looks increasingly like a political loser for Beijing.

Economic Pressure by China on the Philippines during the 2012 South China Sea Dispute

During the 2012 confrontation between China and the Philippines in South China Sea in 2012 Chinese travel agencies suspended tours to the Philippines, and the government has stepped up quarantine inspections on bananas grown in the Philippines.

The Yomiuri Shimbun reported: “the Chinese government “has justified these responses by citing an increase of anti-China protests in the Philippines and the detection of pests in bananas, but it is likely that Beijing is attempting to pressure Manila over the shoal dispute. China's reaction has shades of its response to the collisions between a Chinese fishing boat and Japan Coast Guard patrol vessels near the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea in autumn 2010. After this incident, Beijing piled pressure on Tokyo by restricting exports of rare earth minerals to Japan, for instance. [Ibid]

Andrew Higgins wrote in the Washington Post, China denies mixing politics and business, and it regularly condemns boycotts announced by others. But Beijing has a clear record of quietly using trade to punish countries it quarrels with. When the Oslo-based Nobel Peace Prize committee announced in late 2010 that it would honor jailed Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo, Beijing reacted with fury. Norwegian exports of fresh and frozen salmon to China collapsed, falling by 59 percent last year. Imports of the fish from elsewhere soared. There has been no formal Chinese order restricting imports from Norway, only stringent new food-safety regulations that have mysteriously targeted Norwegian fish. [Source: Andrew Higgins, Washington Post, June 10, 2012]

A 2010 study by two scholars at Germany’s Gottingen University found a direct correlation between China’s foreign policy agenda and trade flows. It noted that China’s authoritarian political system and the large role played by the state in its economy “gives leeway for the utilization of trade flows as a foreign policy tool.” Analyzing data between 1991 and 2008 from 159 trading partners of China, the study found that countries whose leaders met with the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan leader, suffered a swift decline of 8.1 percent to 16.9 percent in exports to China. It said that the phenomenon began after China’s current leader, Hu Jintao, took charge of the ruling Communist Party in 2002, a period that has coincided with a surge in Chinese economic and military power. Beijing reviles the Buddhist monk, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, as a subversive “splittist” and “terrorist” and demands that foreign governments not receive him. [Ibid]

Philippine Banana Growers Feel Effects of South China Sea Dispute

Reporting from Panabo, Philippines, Andrew Higgins wrote in the Washington Post, “Dazzled by the opportunities offered by China’s vast and increasingly prosperous populace, Renante Flores Bangoy, the owner of a small banana plantation here in the southern Philippines, decided three years ago to stop selling to multinational fruit corporations and stake his future on Chinese appetites. Through a local exporter, he started shipping all his fruit to China. [Source: Andrew Higgins, Washington Post, June 10, 2012]

Today, his estate on the tropical island of Mindanao is scattered with heaps of rotting bananas. For seven weeks now---ever since an aging U.S.-supplied Philippine warship squared off with Chinese vessels near a disputed shoal in the South China Sea---Bangoy has not been able to sell a single banana to China. He is a victim of sudden Chinese restrictions on banana imports from the Philippines that China says have been imposed for health reasons but that Bangoy and other growers view as retaliation for a recent flare-up in contested waters around Scarborough Shoal. “They just stopped buying,” Bangoy said. “It is a big disaster.”

His plight points to the volatile nationalist passions that lie just beneath the placid surface of Asia’s economic boom. It also underscores how quickly quarrels rooted in the distant past can disrupt the promise of a new era of shared prosperity and peace between rising China and its neighbors. [Ibid]

Bananas are the Philippines’s second-biggest agricultural export, and for growers more than 700 miles from the disputed area, the damage is done. “We are collateral damage,” said Stephen Antig, executive director of the Pilipino Banana Growers and Exporters Association, a group based in Mindanao’s Davao City, the center of the Philippine banana business. He estimates that as many as 200,000 people in the region will lose their livelihood if China continues to curb imports. Antig had been due to visit China soon to talk to buyers but is going instead to Iran and several Arab countries in search of substitute markets. [Ibid]

Bangoy, the banana grower in Panabo, has no doubt that his China woes are connected to the Scarborough Shoal fracas. The Philippines, he noted, “has been selling bananas to China for more than 10 years without problems, so why did this suddenly happen now?” Unable to sell his fruit because neither local exporters nor Chinese buyers want to risk having their shipments held up for weeks and then rejected by customs inspectors, he has shut down his packing facilities and is praying that the storm will soon pass. His workers still chop bunches of bananas but only because leaving them unharvested would cause disease. “All this is worthless,” he said, pointing to piles of decaying fruit scattered throughout his plantation. “We have to look for alternatives,” he said. Otherwise, “this whole industry will die.”

Before the crisis, China took about a quarter of all bananas exported by the Philippines. This is less than the amount taken by Japan, but China stirred far more excitement among Philippine growers because its appetite just kept growing. Chinese imports of Philippine bananas rose by 27 percent last year and had been expected to increase by up to 40 percent this year, said Antig of the growers association. [Ibid]

Legal Claims on Scarborough Shoal

Arthur Bright wrote in the Christian Science Monitor: “Both China and the Philippines have legal grounds for its claim on the Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea. One of the ways out may be taking the dispute to an international tribunal or the International Court of Justice. But international law may not be able to provide an obvious resolution, as each side has grounds for its claim on the island. [Source: Arthur Bright, Christian Science Monitor, April 12, 2012]

Philippines officials have said that their case under international law would be based on the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea. Both China and the Philippines are signatories to the Convention, which is a treaty between the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and China that states how disputes in the South China Sea will be dealt with. The key clause here is the fourth, which reads: 4. The Parties concerned undertake to resolve their territorial and jurisdictional disputes by peaceful means, without resorting to the threat or use of force, through friendly consultations and negotiations by sovereign states directly concerned, in accordance with universally recognized principles of international law, including the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea;

The 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, in turn, sets out international laws on nations' claims to resources located off their shores. The Convention divides offshore regions into zones, with each zone permitting a different amount of access. In the Scarborough Shoal dispute, the region at issue is the "Exclusive Economic Zone," or "EEZ," the area up to 200 miles off the coast of each nation wherein that nation has sole right to exploit the natural resources located in the ocean and on the ocean floor. Such resources can include fish, natural gas, and oil. [Ibid]

Besides being signatories of the Declaration, both China and the Philippines also signed and ratified the Convention, theoretically incorporating the treaty's provisions into their national laws. The Scarborough Shoal is located less than 150 miles off the Philippine coast, and more than 500 miles away from the Chinese coast. Thus, Manila would argue that the Shoal is well inside their EEZ---and far, far from the Chinese EEZ---giving the Philippines sole claim to its resources and sovereignty over the region. [Ibid]

The Chinese claim is less clear cut, as it is based on historical claims, but still has teeth under international law. International law largely developed out of the customs that nations used when interacting with each other. As such, a nation that is able to show that it has long controlled a region or a resource can argue that it has established a rightful claim. It is such thinking that drives China's claim. As Chinese state news agency Xinhua writes, the Chinese embassy in the Philippines argues that Chinese fisherman have long plied their trade around the Scarborough Shoal, which the Chinese call Huangyan Island. Xinhua writes that China has "abundant historical and jurisprudence backings" for its claim, and the embassy argues that "The fact that China has sovereign rights and exercises jurisdiction over the Huangyan Island is widely respected by the international community." Thus, they say, sufficient custom exists under international law to establish China's claim. [Ibid]

Further, China specifically claimed "sovereignty over all its archipelagos and islands" recognized under Chinese law, even as the government ratified the Convention in 1996. This allowed the Chinese to keep their claim to the Scarborough Shoal and other islands in the South China Sea and elsewhere, even as they agreed to the other terms of the treaty. As such, they can argue against the Philippines' invocation of the Convention, even though the Convention is recognized by China. [Ibid]

Vietnam and the Philippines Refuse to Stamp Controversial New Chinese Passports

In November 2012, GMA News Online reported: “The Philippine government said it will not stamp entry visas on new Chinese passports bearing the controversial nine-dash line map delineating China's territorial claims in the West Philippine (South China) Sea. The nine-dash line covers nearly the entirety of the sea, including areas that are well within Philippine territory and several disputed islands. [Ibid]

Philippine immigration authorities will instead stamp a separate visa application form, the Department of Foreign Affairs said. This will be done “to avoid the Philippines being misconstrued as legitimizing the nine-dash-line claim of China," Presidential Spokesperson Edwin Lacierda told reporters in a text message. The move follows the news that Vietnamese border guards have been refusing to stamp entry visas on the controversial new passports. [Source: GMA News Online, November 28, 2012]

AFP reported: “Vietnamese immigration officers said they were refusing to stamp entry visas into controversial new Chinese passports which feature a map of Beijing's claim to almost all of the South China Sea.Vietnam has said the computer-chipped passports violate its sovereignty and has demanded Beijing withdraw the documents, which show the contested Paracel and Spratly Islands as Chinese territory. [Source: AFP, November 27, 2012]

"We do not stamp the new Chinese passports," said an official at Hanoi's Noi Bai Airport, the country's main international gateway. "We issue them a separate visa," said the official, who did not want to be named. A border guard in northern Lang Son province said they were also not stamping the new passports but issuing separate visas to Chinese arrivals. Even with the new passports, however, "Chinese citizens can still travel normally through the border gate," the guard added. [Ibid]

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said Tuesday that he was not aware of Vietnam's refusal to stamp visas in China's new passports Beijing has attempted to downplay the diplomatic fallout from the recently introduced passports, with the foreign ministry arguing the maps were "not made to target any specific country". Microblog users in China complained the immigration rules for the new passports were causing inconvenience and delays on arrival. "Immigration is requesting a separate visa form. This is causing lots of trouble, and is very time consuming," one user wrote on Weibo, China's version of Twitter. [Ibid]

India has also protested against the map in Beijing's new biometric passports. India has started stamping its own map onto visas issued to Chinese visitors as the map shows the disputed border areas of Arunachal Pradesh and Aksai Chin as part of Chinese territory. [Ibid]

Image Sources: Wikcommons

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Yomiuri Shimbun, The Guardian, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated December 2012

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