China and the Republic of the Philippines have been engaged in a tussle for a group of islands known as Scarborough Shoals in the South China Sea. This all started when China rebuffed Philippine attempts to apprehend the crew members of eight Chinese fishing boats last month. While China and the Philippines (along with other East Asian countries) claim sovereignty over these islands, this incident brings to light the seriousness that China attaches to these islands, and its willingness force the issue (nothing new with China, of course).
The President of the Philippines, Benigno Aquino, has issued a warning to neighboring countries to beware of China’s increased assertiveness in the South China Sea. The foreign secretary of Philippines, Alberto del Rosario has implored the neighboring nations and global powers to take a unified stand against Chinese aggression in hope of reaching a peaceful solution to the increasingly disputed territories in the South China Sea.
Rosario predicted that other nations in the region would find themselves in similar predicaments if they didn’t take a stand. Rosario’s contention is that the South China Sea is of great strategic importance to the nations in the region. Freedom of navigation to carry out trade and commerce through the trading lanes in the South China Sea is essential to the survival and prosperity of all nations in the region; they should be equally as alarmed by the Chinese claim on the Scarborough Shoal, which according to Rosario, is baseless.
China insists that the entire South China Sea, including areas close to other South-East Asian countries, belongs to China. Countries like the Republic of the Philippines and Vietnam have become increasingly wary of the aggressive posture adopted by China on this issue leading to increased friction and tension in the region.
The Precipitating Events
April 8th witnessed the latest in a series of incidents between Philippines and China. When the Philippines dispatched its warships to arrest the crew of Chinese fishing boats near Scarborough Shoal, China immediately countered with three civilian vessels which blocked and delayed the warships.
To prevent further escalation of the matter, Philippines replaced its warship with a Coast Guard ship following which the fishing boats were allowed to sail away. However, the situation led to the current standoff when China refused to withdraw its civilian vessels unless Philippines did the same with its Coast Guard vessel.
Military officials expect the tensions over the disputed territory to drag on for several years unless China approaches the negotiating table with sincerity. This analysis has led to suggestions that the government needs to employ a better strategy, including establishing a minimum deterrent force, to counter the perceived Chinese threat.
The Department of Foreign Affairs accused China of maintaining its aggressive stance on the issue, as China refused to reduce tensions in the region by pulling out its ships.
China and Russia: Strange Bedfellows?
While China is involved in territorial disputes with its Southern and Eastern neighbors, it is currently engaged in joint naval exercises with Russia. These exercises are indicative of warming ties between the militaries of Russia and China, and a convergence of strategic interests.
According to CCTV, the Chinese state broadcaster, the joint exercises lasted six days and featured anti-submarine operations, simulated anti-aircraft operations, search and rescue operations and evaluation of electronic countermeasures along with more sensitive technologies.
While China and Russia have never had a comfortable relationship, they have started finding common ground on regional and global issues. This convergence of strategic interests of Russia and China has often resulted in the two countries voting against Western proposals in the United Nations Security Council.
President Aquino: “China is practically claiming the whole body of water”
Philippine President Aquino said that China’s claims in the South China Sea included a huge area, a part of which is alarmingly close to Philippine territories. Referring to the map of the disputed area, Aquino pointed out that China was laying claims to the entire area, and that this should be a cause for concern for the other countries in the region.
The naval maps point out that the Chinese territory closest to the disputed islands is the Hainan province which is 1200 kilometers away in the northwest of the islands. On the other hand, the shoal is a mere 230 kilometers away from the main island of Philippines, Luzon.
Aquino’s warnings have come quickly after the Philippine government announced that it would raise the issue of the increased tensions and the dispute with the US at a high level meeting scheduled for next week. According to Aquino, Scarborough is within Philippines’ exclusive economic zone as recognized by the international community.
The issue will be formally brought up in talks between Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin and Foreign Secretary Alberto del Rosario, and their American counterparts Leon Panetta and Hillary Clinton, to be held in Washington.
Will we see U.S. Involvement?
The Philippines and the United States are party to a pact which obliges the United States to come to Philippines’ aid should Philippines be a victim of military aggression. However, Manila’s decision to take the issue up with the United States could further antagonize China, which is keen to keep the United States out of these disputes.
The Chinese claims over the entire South China Sea have resulted in territorial disputes with a number of ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) countries including Malaysia, Vietnam, Brunei and Taiwan.
Earlier calls to the ASEAN countries from the Philippines to take a united stance against Chinese claims in the South China Sea didn’t evoke considerable response due to a fear of reprisals from Asia’s most powerful nation.
Bayan Statement on the Incursions on Panatag Shoal
According to the Bayan (Bagong Alyansang Makabayan), China’s incursions at the Panatag Shoal betray its imperialistic attitude in the region. It beggars belief that China should lay claim to territory which lies within Philippines’ exclusive economic zone of 200 nautical miles according to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.
Bayan is a left leaning organization which shares the goals and vision of the Communist Party of the Philippines and the New People’s Army, which is the Maoist inspired armed wing of the Communist Party. Renato Reyes Jr., the Secretary General of Bayan has no doubts that the aggressive posture adopted by China is due to the imperialistic ambitions harbored by China’s capitalist leadership. China might still be a communist country in terms of politics, but is unabashedly capitalist when it comes to economic matters. However, Bayan doesn’t want the government of Philippines to increase US presence in the region by using the Panatag Shoal as an excuse, claiming that any intervention by the US will be a violation of Philippine national sovereignty.
The defense secretary Voltaire Gazmin insists that the Chinese incursion is a case of territorial violation and breach of international laws by China. Gazmin stressed that, given the aggressive posture adopted by China, nothing short of a modernized military will be able to counter Chinese aggression.
More of the Same from China
At this point, is anyone truly surprised that China is using aggressive measures to bully neighboring countries for its own gain? Whether or not the US gets involved, it seems clear that China will continue to take such actions until combined forces of neighboring nations put a stop to them.