Over one month has passed since the China-Philippines standoff over Huangyan Island (Scarborough shoal) started on 10 April 2012. The Philippines’ biggest naval vessel BRP Gregorio Del Pilar attempted to intercept Chinese fishing boats which were reported to take shelter from a storm in the lagoon of Huangyan Island. Although diplomatic negotiations resumed on 9 May, neither side has yet backed off.
With the standoff dragging on there have been broader repercussions on bilateral relations. China has warned its citizens of the safety and security when considering travelling to the Philippines. Travel agencies have started marketing other countries in Southeast Asia to Chinese tourists. Chartered flights have had to be rescheduled or cancelled. Comparing with April last year, ticket-bookings to the Philippines from Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou dropped by 30%. China is the fourth largest market for tourists to the Philippines and the number of tourists from China had increased by 77% during the first three months of 2012. However, since 16 May no Chinese tourist groups visit the Philippines. Bananas from the Philippines exported to China have come under closer scrutiny and as a result 1,200 containers of bananas are being held in customs because of “quarantine concerns”. The fishermen of both countries have stopped communicating at sea. Filipino fishermen were reported as saying that Chinese fishermen used to offer them drinking water when a gesture was shown for that need.
The issue of territorial sovereignty in the South China Sea is always sensitive even for such a small feature as Huangyan Island. Any escalation could lead to the situation spilling out of control. For politicians it is essential to avoid miscalculations and misjudgements. Any mishandling could go far beyond the dispute over Huangyan Island.
It appears that both China and the Philippines are unwilling and unlikely to give up their claims to Huangyan Island. Under the UN Charter as well as the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, it is universally accepted that peaceful settlement of international disputes is one of the fundamental principles in international law. What has been happening around Huangyan Island shows that for the foreseeable future the sovereignty dispute will be very difficult to settle.
As long as the sovereignty dispute over Huangyan Island remains un-settled, incidents such as the present standoff may occur again. It is necessary for both countries to peacefully manage the current situation and to prevent tension from re-occurring in the future. Political wisdom is needed to find creative means to address the current situation and to create mechanisms to reduce the re-emergence of tension in the future.
Will the current stalemate lead to further escalation or will it create an opportunity for both countries to come up with some cooperative mechanism? In order to avoid escalation and reoccurrence of similar standoffs, it seems to be necessary for both countries to cool down the heated row and seek a collaborative solution.
One option is to shelve the sovereignty issue and to explore the possibilities of jointly develop the marine resources in the disputed area. The two parties could also initiate talks on establishing mechanisms for managing the situation in the area. This could be done by using the Joint Statement between the Philippines and China on “Consultations on the South China Sea and on Other Areas of Cooperation” from August 1995 as a basis.
In terms of fishery cooperation the two countries could either declare a fishing moratorium in the disputed area or agree to a total annual catch for each State’s nationals. Flag state control can be practiced in the area while effective communication channels should be set up to exchange information on illegal fishing cases of the other side. A maritime zone can also be considered for the purpose of marine environmental protection. Cooperation in any form in the disputed waters could send a positive signal which would be conducive to building trust between China and the Philippines.
From 16 May China is implementing its moratorium on fishing in parts of the South China Sea as it has done each year since 1999. Two days earlier the Philippine Foreign Minister said, “We do not recognize China's fishing ban in our Exclusive Economic Zone”. However, the President of the Philippines has stated there are plans to issue a fishing ban for a period of time to replenish the fish stock. He has also called for separating an economic resolution from a political one. Whether or not it will be possible to separate the two dimensions remains to be seen.
If the two countries can move in the direction of collaborative arrangements for the disputed area around Huangyan Island, the current tension can be reduced. This could also serve as a model for similar arrangements in the other disputed areas of the South China Sea.
Jianwei Li is Director of Research Center for Marine Science, National Institute for South China Sea Studies and Ramses Amer is Senior Research Fellow, Center for Pacific Asia Studies.