Standoff at Scarborough Shoal

By James Balicao,

The current standoff between China and the Philippines over land rich in oil threatens international relations. Tensions have been high in the South China Sea as the two countries have been having dispute over who has rights to the Scarborough Shoals, located about 124 nautical miles west of Luzon, the Philippine mainland. Scarborough is 550 nautical miles from Hainan Island, the closest Chinese port to the shoal. This difference in distance is raising serious questions among some scholars about China’s claim to the shoal.

“This is ridiculous,” said Jeffrey Acido, an associate professor in Philippine Studies at UH Manoa, and a Philippine activist in Hawai’i. “If you look at the map, it’s clear we own that land. You have to be blind to say so otherwise.”
The South China Sea has been the focus of growing friction between China and its neighbors in recent years, with experts pointing to valuable natural resources as the cause. Many fear the fact that this conflict has been becoming harder and harder to contain. With the Philippines dispute, both countries claim that Scarborough Shoal is an integral part of their territory.

“We cannot keep silent about this,” Acido said. “Are we just going to watch China do as they please and let them take what is truly ours? Scarborough is a source of livelihood for many fishermen. They’re losing their source of income to support their families because China has blocked the area. All for what? Because they found oil in the shoal and now they want to bully their way to have it. It angers me.”

Land claims

Both countries have strong cases to call the shoals their own. The People’s Republic of China claims the land is theirs, citing historical records. They claim that Chinese people discovered the shoal centuries ago and that there is a long history of Chinese fishing activity in the area. It is a part of the sovereignty claim issues that China has been facing with multiple countries in the South China Sea in fall 2012.

The Philippines claims its right for the shoal based on the juridical criteria established by public international law on the lawful methods for the acquisition of sovereignty, according to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Given its proximity to the Philippines, common sense dictates that the shoal is lying within Philippine territorial waters. International law has supported the Philippines because the shoal is within the country’s 200-nautical-mile radius, which is recognized by international law to be the rule for claiming a land territory.

“This is contradictory,” said Shu He, an associate professor at Peking University School of Journalism and Communication. “To set up a distance is to cut off the history. It’s like erasing the history of China being in these islands first from a long time ago. … This is unfair.”

The dispute over Scarborough began in April this year when the Philippine Navy discovered eight Chinese fishing ships in the shoal. After getting a closer look at the ships, Philippine authorities discovered large amounts of illegally collected corals, live sharks and other endangered marine life in the hands of Chinese fishermen. Before the Chinese ships and fishermen were arrested, two Chinese surveillance ships arrived at the area and positioned themselves between the Chinese vessels and the Philippine ships. There has been a fleet of Chinese ships surveying the shoal ever since the incident.

Differing opinions

“China has the right to interfere,” He said. “China may keep silent or make a position depends on how you make the issue to the world. The world cannot just ignore our history and take it for granted.”

Through diplomatic talk, China has provided three conditions for this problem to be resolved. First, that the Chinese vessels in Scarborough Shoals should not be interrupted in any of their current activities. Second, any Chinese vessels in the South China Sea should be left alone to continue fulfilling their duties. And third, The Philippines vessels should withdraw from the shoal completely.

The negotiation between the two countries has been stagnant at best. But given the close relationship between the Philippines and the United States, the U.S. has been sending more military vessels and personnel to the country to support the standoff. U.S. and the Philippines conduct joint military exercises on a regular basis. On top of the U.S., Japan has already given statement that it is willing to lend the Philippines some of its patrol ships to help boost the defense capacity of the Philippines in the area. If tensions get too high and U.S. and other countries get too involved with the dispute, it might raise concerns with international relations. China has increased its military spending.

Concerns continue to grow in the South China Sea. China. With China’s demand to have the Philippines handover the shoal to China, a resolution is nowhere in sight.

“This is more than a standoff,” Acido said. “It is a fight for sovereignty. We are peaceful people. We want to resolve this problem in the most diplomatic way possible.

But China needs to be reasonable with us. They can’t just expect to claim and take everything.”

Here is a video report by Al Jazeera about the Scarborough standoff.
Scarborough Shoals Standoff