By Jay L. Batongbacal
Tensions between the China and the Philippines spiked last March when a small civilian boat was confronted by a Chinese Coast Guard vessel about 175 km from the Philippine coast. The boat was trying to bring soldiers, food, and water to a remote outpost on a grounded derelict on Second Thomas Shoal, which serves as the Philippines’ last line of defence 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 UN 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 Philippino ships in the SCS. In the aftermath of the effective takeover of the Scarborough Shoal located well within the Philippine exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in 2012, the Second Thomas Shoal incident is the latest flare in the ongoing contests for portions of the SCS. I marks China’s increasingly provocative movements against her maritime neighbours.
China’s regional adventurism in the SCS is a product of its impressive economic growth and aspirations to be a major maritime power. Its economy relies greatly upon maritime trade, and the SCS contains vital sea-lanes needed to transport everything from fuel and raw materials to manufactured goods. Its coastal regions also host hundreds of Chinese fishing communities. The Chinese leadership must prove to these communities that the benefits of its economic growth are not funnelled exclusively to coastal metropolises like Shanghai. To protect its massive trade interests and demanding fishing population, China is investing heavily in its military and civilian maritime assets to enhance its capability to project its naval might, as well as its fishing fleets.
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. Last December, a Chinese documentary entitled “Journey to the SCS,” released by the state-run CCTV-4, proudly revealed that since 2007 its maritime law enforcement agencies had confronted its neighbours’ 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 re-interpretation of its history, which denies the long existence and equally legitimate rights and interests of her smaller Southeast Asian neighbours. 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. They also have exclusive rights to such portions, recognised in the modern international law agreed upon by all States (including China) and expressed in instruments like UNCLOS.
From the Philippines perspective, China began to deny it long-standing access to the sea. In 2010 and 2011, China actively protested and interfered with offshore petroleum exploration just 80-150 km from the Philippine 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 neighbours to retake the SCS by force.
With its proverbial back against the wall, the Philippines could do little but seek the support of its long-time ally, the US, to dissuade China’s increasingly assertive and dangerous maritime incursions. It also had to take a huge gamble, unilaterally launching an international arbitration against China, 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 neighbour.
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 major impact on the future of the contested maritime region, which is also a strategic nexus of global trade routes and vital gateway for access 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 neighbour, the Philippines can only hope that fortune truly favours the bold.
Jay Batongbacal is the Director of the UP Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea at the University of the Philippines. He was a member of the technical team that defended the Philippines’ claim to a continental shelf beyond 200 nautical miles in the Benham Rise Region, made in a Submission filed with the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf
This article first appeared in www.themarknews.com