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Standoff at Scarborough Shoal: Implications for US-China Relations

May 09 , 2012
  • Carlyle Thayer

    Emeritus Professor at the University of New South Wales

On April 10th China and the Philippines became embroiled in a naval standoff in disputed waters in the South China Sea. The standoff occurred when the Philippine Navy frigate, BRP Gregorio del Pilar, was sent to investigate the sighting of eight Chinese fishing boats at Scarborough Shoal 124 nautical miles west of Luzon.  On arrival an armed boarding party searched the Chinese boats and discovered that one of them contained coral, giant calms and live sharks, all protected under Philippine law.

Shortly after, two unarmed China Marine Surveillance (CMS) vessels appeared and interposed themselves between the fishing boats and the frigate thus preventing any arrest or confiscation of their catch. Two days later, while the Philippines replaced the frigate with a Coast Guard vessel, China deployed an armed Fishery Law Enforcement Command (FLEC) ship at the shoal.
This series of events prompted both the Philippines and China to lodge multiple diplomatic protests with each other. Both sides claimed that Scarborough Shoal was an integral part of its territory. China even ordered the Philippine frigate to leave its waters.
While these diplomatic exchanges were taking place all of the Chinese fishing boats and two Chinese escorts left the shoal. Expectations that the stand off would be resolved quickly were dashed when one of the Chinese ships returned and a Chinese aircraft flew over the Coast Guard vessel. A third FLEC ship has been sent to the area as the stand off continues.
On the face of it the Scarborough Shoal incident is a dispute over sovereign rights to the fishing area surrounding the shoal. The Philippines claims sovereign rights under the terms of the United Nations Convention on Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and its provision for a 200 nautical mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). 
The Philippines may have erred tactically by dispatching a naval warship to engage in fishery law enforcement.  A Philippines Coast Guard commander was quoted at the time as stating that the navy should not be involved in the enforcement of maritime laws because that was the responsibility of the Coast Guard. The Philippines quickly rectified the matter by replacing the navy warship with a Coast Guard vessel.
It is important to note that all the Chinese vessels involved were civilian. The CMS vessels fall under the authority of the State Oceanographic Administration, while the FLEC ships fall under the Ministry of Agriculture’s Bureau of Fisheries Administration.
This incident has at least three major implications that go beyond a fisheries jurisdiction dispute. First, the standoff at Scarborough Shoal exposes the Philippines’ lack of capacity to enforce its sovereignty over its EEZ and thus undermines the credibility of official Philippines statements that it “will secure our sovereignty.”
China is building up the size of its civilian maritime enforcement fleets and it is only a matter of time before China either dominates the fishing grounds off the west coast of the Philippines or a clash occurs between Chinese and Philippines vessels.
Second, the Scarborough Shoal incident has provoked a domestic outcry in the Philippines that is largely critical of the role its ally, the United States. Philippine Senators and Congressmen have berated the US for its inaction. So far the US has only released a statement urging “all parties to exercise full restraint and seek a diplomatic resolution.” Filipino elites have also been critical of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) for not providing political support.
The domestic reaction in the Philippines reveals unrealistic expectations about its Mutual Defense Treaty with the United States. This treaty provides for consultations in the event “the territorial integrity, political independence or security of either of the Parties is threatened by external armed attack in the Pacific.” So far China has scrupulously avoided using force.
Third, from April 16-27, the Philippines and the United States commenced their 28th Balikatan (Shoulder-to-Shoulder) combined and joint military exercise. This was planned long before the Scarborough Shoal incident. Balikatan involves two phases of simultaneous multiple exercises. The first phase focuses on humanitarian and civic assistance in Palawan, while the second phase involves field training exercises in Luzon and Palawan. None of the Balikatan exercises will take place outside the Philippines’ territorial waters including an exercise to defend and retake an oil rig captured by terrorists.
Balikatan is designed to promote interoperability between the armed forces of the Philippines and the United States. The Chinese media has been comparatively restrained in its criticism pointedly noting that military exercises should contribute to regional peace and stability. Since China too conducts military exercises with foreign nations it must appear consistent. Indeed, as Balikatan got underway, China commenced joint naval exercises with Russia in the Yellow Sea. 
The legal and strategic issues raised by the Scarborough Shoal incident will persist long after the current standoff is resolved.  China insists on settling sovereignty disputes bilaterally with the Philippines. The Philippines refuses to enter into bilateral negotiations with China; it prefers a multilateral approach involving fellow members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), but ASEAN remains divided on this issue. The Philippines has also invited China to refer their dispute over sovereign rights to the International Tribunal on Law of the Sea. China refuses to do so.
The strategic issues raised by Scarborough Shoal can best be addressed by giving up priority to building up the maritime enforcement capabilities of the Philippine Coast Guard. The United States, Japan, South Korea. Australia and other like-minded states should increase assistance in capacity-building and training.
Over the longer term the Philippines must stick to the present commitment of President Aquino to modernize the country’s armed forces for territorial defense. The objective of force modernization should be to create a minimal credible deterrent against conventional naval threats. Without this deterrent the Philippines cannot defend its sovereignty and effectively contribute to its alliance with the US.
The next five years will be critical.. As the South China Sea becomes more congested the likelihood of an armed incident involving China and the Philippines will increase and possibly trigger US intervention. The US and its allies also must keep up diplomatic pressure on China to refrain from force and intimidation
Carlyle A. Thayer is Emeritus Professor, The University of New South Wales at the Australian Defence Force Academy, Canberra.
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