Philippines’ gambit in South China Sea


Tensions between China and the Philippines spiked in March when a small civilian boat was confronted by a Chinese Coast Guard vessel about 100 miles from the Philippine coast. The boat was trying to bring soldiers, food and water to a grounded Philippine Navy ship on Second Thomas Shoal, which serves as the Philippines’ last line of defense against further Chinese incursions into its waters in the South China Sea (SCS).

The incident took place just two days before the Philippines submitted its Memorial in a case filed before an arbitral tribunal established under the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

Documented by journalists on board the small boat, the incident further proves that China has established an undeclared and paramilitary blockade against Philippine ships in the SCS. In 2012, China effectively took over the Scarborough Shoal, which is located well within the Philippine exclusive economic zone (EEZ). This Second Thomas Shoal incident is the latest flare in the ongoing contest for portions of the SCS. It marks China’s increasingly provocative movements against its maritime neighbors.

While such provocative acts may be seen as rational from the perspective of an aspiring maritime power (its moves are basically patterned after the US sea-power doctrine), China also claims almost the entire SCS as its exclusive waters. It no longer hides its intention to dominate this strategic maritime region. In December, a Chinese documentary entitled Journey to the South China Sea, released by the state-run CCTV-4, proudly revealed that since 2007, China’s maritime law-enforcement agencies have confronted its neighbors’ ships in dangerous games of “chicken,” reminiscent of US–USSR naval rivalries during the Cold War.

China claims the vast SCS waters on the basis of a creative reinterpretation of its history, which denies the long existence and equally legitimate rights and interests of its smaller Southeast Asian neighbors. Chinese records notwithstanding, the SCS has historically been an international maritime commons, while the energy and fishery resources in adjacent portions of the SCS comprise the historical and natural heritage of states like the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, Indonesia, and Vietnam. These countries also have exclusive rights to such portions, recognized in the modern international law agreed upon by all states (including China) and expressed in instruments like the UNCLOS.

From the Philippines’ perspective, China began to deny it its long-standing access to the sea. In 2010 and 2011, China actively protested and interfered with offshore petroleum exploration just 50–100 miles from the Philippines’ west coast. In 2012, the actual taking of Scarborough Shoal in response to a Philippine attempt to arrest Chinese fishermen for harvesting coral and endangered species only demonstrated that China fully intended to deprive the country of its western EEZ and continental shelf.

It did not help that the Chinese media also openly circulated hawkish proposals of “small wars” against its neighbors to retake the SCS by force. With its back against the wall, the Philippines could do little but seek the support of its long-time ally, the United States, to dissuade China’s increasingly assertive and dangerous maritime incursions. It also had to take a huge risk by unilaterally launching an international arbitration against China. It did so in the hope that international law affords a more equitable venue for the protection of its maritime rights and interests against the seemingly unstoppable expansion of its powerful neighbor.

China is steadfast in its refusal to participate in the arbitration and it remains to be seen if the Philippine gambit will succeed or fail. A decision could have a major impact on the future of the contested maritime region, which is also a strategic nexus of global trade routes and a vital gateway between the Indian and Pacific Oceans. While the present dispute is between the Philippines and China, the outcome may decide whether the South China Sea will remain part of the global commons or be taken from the rest of the world. With precious little with which to challenge its giant neighbor, the Philippines can only hope that fortune truly favors the bold.

- The writer is the director of the UP Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea at the University of the Philippines. (The Mark News).

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