The Scarborough standoff is between an elephant and an ant – Domingo Siazon, former foreign secretary
By Raïssa Robles
Scarborough Shoal is a triangle-shaped reef with a circumference of 46 kilometers. A 370-meter channel cuts through the reef and leads to an inner lagoon. Several rock formations jut out on the reef but only one – the South Rock – remains above water at high tide.
It is also referred to as an atoll or “island consisting of a circular coral reef surrounding a lagoon.”
Former Philippine Foreign Secretary Domingo Siazon described the current stand-off at Scarborough Shoal between China and the Philippines as “between (two countries) the size of an elephant and an ant.”
” It’s not comparable at all,” he told me in an interview.
China recently sent an all-white patrol vessel – the Yuzheng-310 – its most advanced non-military ship in order to enforce its sovereignty over the Shoal which it started calling Huangyan Island in 1983.
The same area in the South China Sea, however, continues to be patrolled by a Philippine Coast Guard ship, the BRP Edsa 2.
According to Chinese media, over 20 Philippine-registered vessels also continue to stay there, ostensibly conducting archeological research.
Beijing has said that whatever shipwreck lies beneath belongs to them. Manila has ignored this.
In a separate interview, China expert Chito Sta Romana cautioned that the situation could trigger a short but violent confrontation:
There is a potential for miscalculation.
Siazon aired the same assessment.
What if PH simply gives up the Shoal to China?
Before I go any further, I would like to raise some important points on the issue.
First, what Filipinos might not realize is that this kind of tension is nothing new in the area.
Second, the Spratlys Islands are different and separate from the Scarborough Shoal. While Spratlys and Scarborough Shoal are both in the South China Sea (recently baptized by the Philippine government as the West Philippine Sea), Spratlys and Scarborough are two distinct areas and not to be confused for one or the other.
Third, it’s very shallow to look at the present face-off through the lens of pure military confrontation and showdown. I will explain that later.
And fourth, while only the Philippines and China are claiming Scarborough, its sole acquisition and control by China could have far-reaching implications for the region, especially for Japan and India, and for the United States.
As for the Philippines, it would mean that China would totally own an area that is only 137 nautical miles from Palauig, Zambales, but at least 500 nautical miles from Hainan Island. Hainan “administers” Scarborough and other contested areas in the South China Sea.
It would mean China would control the surrounding seas radiating 12 miles around the Shoal and this is within the Philippines’ 200 mile Exclusive Economic Zone under the UNCLOS (United Nations Convention on the Law of the Seas).
It would mean that Filipino fishermen who wander into this 12-mile radius could be harassed, their catch confiscated, and even arrested.
It would mean that Filipino fishermen might no longer seek shelter within the reef’s inner lagoon, as they have done for centuries during sea storms. The Shoal derived one of its names from the tea-trade ship Scarborough that was shipwrecked there in the late 1800s.
How far is Scarborough Shoal by sea?
I wondered how far Hainan was to Scarborough Shoal and how near the Shoal was to the Philippine main island of Luzon. The Chinese government has been very careful not to give away the distance between Hainan and Scarborough but I’ve read it is at least 500 nautical miles. Perhaps knowledgeable experts could help me out on this.
Anyway, I phoned the Philippine Navy yesterday to find out how long a ship would take – say the BRP Gregorio del Pilar – to sail from Zambales to the Shoal and from the Shoal to Hainan ( assuming the distances of 137 nautical miles from Zambales to the Shoal and 500 nautical miles from the Shoal to Hainan).
I was told to divide the nautical miles by the ship’s steaming speed of 24 knots. This means BRP Gregorio del Pilar would take about 5.7 hours from Zambales to Scarborough.
But from Scarborough to Hainan would take 20.8 hours.
This means a fast ship like BRP Gregorio del Pilar would take over a day to sail from Zambales all the way to Hainan – now home to China’s nuclear submarine base..
A Filipino academic who is an expert on international law cautioned me, however, that distance does not affect a country’s claim on sovereignty.
The same was mentioned by Hua Zhang, the new spokesman of the Chinese Embassy in Manila. He said:
The Philippines asserts that Huangyan Island is closer to its territory, but in fact ‘geographical proximity’ has long been dismissed by the international law and practice as the principle of the solution of territory ownership.
In response to the Chinese Embassy statement, however, the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs countered that the nearness of the Shoal to Luzon was not the basis for claiming sovereignty. The DFA said that historically, the Shoal has been called Bajo de Masinloc:
In the case of Bajo de Masinloc, the Philippines has exercised both effective occupation and effective jurisdiction over Bajo de Masinloc since its independence.
The name Bajo de Masinloc (translated as “under Masinloc”) itself identifies the shoal as a particular political subdivision of the Philippine province of Zambales, known as Masinloc.
The time line I have provided later in this article will show how the Philippines has sought through the years to demonstrate its “effective occupation and effective jurisdiction” over the Shoal.
How important is Scarborough?
As early as 1999 when tension erupted around Scarborough, a Chinese international law professor at the University of Central Lancashire named Zou Keyuan wrote a piece entitled Scarborough Reef: A New Flashpoint in Sino-Philippine Relations?
Here, he noted the importance of Scarborough Shoal:
Around Scarborough Reef, marine living resources are abundant, and these are traditional fishing targets for Chinese fishermen as well as for Philippine fishermen.
In addition, Chinese fishing vessels often sail into Scarborough Reef’s lagoon to collect, for example, shells and sea cucumbers. There is also an international navigational waterway near Scarborough Reef. Approximately 300 ships pass in the vicinity of the reef daily. Japan uses this route to transport 80% of its petroleum from the Middle East, and therefore regards this waterway as its lifeline.
Can a shooting war break out?
At the moment, it’s a war of rhetoric. .
An article in the Global Times of China posted the following advice:
Facing this complex dispute, China first needs cool-headedness. A hasty decision may cause more troubles. Addressing the South China Sea issue is set to be a long and arduous process. This is already a geopolitical reality that China faces. China should try to seize more initiative in this process, rather than being led by other regional players.
But it added:
China should be prepared to engage in a small-scale war at sea with the Philippines. Once the war erupts, China must take resolute action and deliver a clear message to the outside world that it does not want a war, but definitely has no fear of it. Nevertheless, such a war cannot put the South China Sea issue to an end.
But as I said earlier, Chinese expert Chito Sta. Romana has warned of a “potential for miscalculation”.
I decided to interview Sta Romana extensively because before he became a balikbayan (or overseas returnee) last year, he lived in China for 39 years, is fluent in Mandarin, was a reporter for ABC News network for a decade, and took time off to finish a master’s degree in International Relations at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy in Boston, Massachusetts.
Historically, though, the Chinese have never engaged Filipinos in a shooting war (if you discount Limahong who invaded Luzon in 1574). But there could always be a first time.
In the past, both sides went the extra mile to avert a shooting war, Siazon told me. He said there have been many incidents embroiling the Chinese and Filpinos in the South China Sea.
But what happened near Scarborough in May 1999 during his watch was worse than what has been happening in recent days, he said.
Siazon told me the following story:
“There was an incident in May 1999 on Scarborough Shoal. The Philippine navy or coast guard was going after Chinese fishing ships, several of them (over several days) two (Chinese) ships were sunk. They collided with the two Philippine navy or coast guard ship.
When that happened, China was of course very upset. The issue was raised immediately.
I talked with the Director General of the Asia Pacific, Mr Wang Yi. He became the ambassador to Japan. I had known him in Japan previously. [Note: At the time of the collision incident, Wang Yi’s official designation was chief of the Asian Affairs Department of China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. See his biodata by clicking here.]
I explained (to Wang Yi) it was an accident. He said if it’s an accident we should reimburse the fishermen (because) that’s their main livelihood. I said we’ll think about this. The Philippine government cannot reimburse because it is in our area of control. We are claiming it.
But he (Wang Yi) said you have to consider the fishermen. They have no means of income. You have to find a way of getting them some compensation.
So I talked around. The Philippine Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Industry volunteered to provide the monetary – it should not be called compensation – to cover the costs of the two shipping vessels. Like the ones that are there fishing now.
Siazon said this was how the incident was resolved in 1999.
But he warned such incidents will keep cropping up:
These things things go on and on. You just have to manage this relationship. You are neighbors. Both of you are claiming (the area). It is the handling that is important. You cannot solve it (right now) because there is no way of solving it.
Both Siazon and Sta Romana said that if no diplomatic solution is found, the present standoff in Scarborough could drag on until the onset of the rainy season when the seas become too rough for fishing vessels.
Should Manila drag the US into the dispute?
Both Siazon and Sta. Romana are cold to the idea. They said it could complicate the situation.
Sta Romana explained that the US is a hot button issue for the Chinese people. Any sign of direct US involvement would stir up feelings of nationalism among them. This was why the announcement of a potential alliance between Manila and Washington over the South China Sea early this year was met negatively in China.
As for Siazon, he claimed this might draw China and the US, both nuclear powers, into a potential flashpoint. It is for this reason, he said:
I have always been wary of involving the US in those kinds of disputes. The dispute, if it goes bad, will become only a conventional conflict between the Philippines and China.
If you convert it to a China and US conflict, invariably they might have to use nuclear weapons. The location is near us. There is no upside for us.
In a book entitled Evolving Maritime Balance of Power in the Asia Pacific, he contributed a piece which said:
The PLAN (People’s Liberation Army Navy) is still a second-rate navy as compared to the top naval power, including Japan.
Two summers ago in another article, Dr You Ji wrote that any claimant would find it difficult “to initiate armed conflict in the Spratlys. The cost is also enormous, in both diplomatic and financial terms.
Of China, he had this to say:
China is over 1,100 km away and a distance of over 300 km separates the coasts of Vietnam and Philippines and the Spratlys. Military operations are hard to mount from such a distance, even for the PLAN that is still weak in air defense, anti-submarine warfare and logistical supply. Under unique circumstances, such as an attack by another claimant, sea battles are imaginable, but the chances are extremely remote.
The media has exaggerated the severity of the recent round of the sovereignty dispute. There is a great deal of subtlety in reiterating claims mainly for domestic consumption and for preparation of military actions. The former is largely rhetorical and unlikely to trigger tension escalation beyond certain limits. The current round clearly belongs to the first category. People who know about the real situation have dismissed the prospects of another period of tension, similar to that in the early 1990s.
From what Dr. You Ji wrote in his 2010 paper entitled China’s Response to the Deadly Triangle: Arms Race, Territorial Disputes and Energy Security, I would hazard a guess that what China is doing now at Scarborough Shoal is an attempt to gain a foothold in another part of the South China Sea that would extend its military, economic and security projection way beyond Hainan.
The Shoal would be like a lily pad to them, much like Mindanao has become a lily pad to the US.
How can the conflict be resolved peacefully?
Both Siazon and Chito Sta Romana confirmed to me that among all the claimants of the various islands, reefs and rock formations in the South China Sea or West Philippine Sea, only the Philippines and China are fighting over Scarborough Shoal.
Centuries-old maps of the Philippines printed in Europe refer to the Shoal as Bajo de Masinloc.
To the Philippines, Scarborough Shoal is not part of Spratlys, Siazon told me. This viewpoint has been emphasized in recent days by the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs and the Department of National Defense.
Since the basis for the Philippine claim has been well aired in Philippine media, I asked Sta. Romana to explain the Chinese claim to me in very basic terms. Like many Filipinos I was confused whether or not Scarborough Shoal was part of the Spratlys (which the Chinese call Nansha Islands).
Sta Romana said:
To China, Scarborough Shoal is not part of the Spratlys (group of Islands).
Sta Romana explained that the Chinese government has classified the islands in the South China Sea into four groupings:
The Spratlys they call “Nansha” which literally means – southern sand.
The Paracel Islands they call “Xisha” or west sand.
The Pratas Islands they call “Dongsha” or east sand
And the Macclesfield Bank (where they later included Scarborough Shoal) they call “Zhongsha” or central sand.
China publicly announced these groupings in a 1958 “Declaration on the Territorial Sea” which stated that:
The breadth of the territorial sea of the People’s Republic of China shall be twelve nautical miles. This provision applies to all territories of the People’s Republic of China, including the Chinese mainland and its coastal islands, as well as Taiwan and its surrounding islands, the Penghu Islands, the Dongsha Islands, the Xisha Islands, the Zhongsha Islands, the Nansha Islands and all other islands belonging to China which are separated from the mainland and its coastal islands by the high seas [NOTE: I added the bold face.]
Initially, Sta Romana said, China had lumped Scarborough under Nansha (Spratlys). But later, it reclassified this as part of the Zhongsha Islands. He suggested I read Prof. Zou Keyuan on the matter.
Zou Keyuan noted that China had chosen to lump Scarborough together with the Macclesfield Bank . He also noted that the Shoal was farther from Macclesefield (around 170 nautical miles) than from Zambales province (only some 115 nautical miles).
Dr. Zou Keyuan added:
Certain foreign scholars challenge the inclusion of Scarborough Reef in the Zhongsha Islands as being geographically questionable, and even incorrect. The problem lies in the different perceptions of the meaning of the term “Zhongsha Qundao.” If the term Zhongsha Islands is regarded merely as the English equivalent to Macclesfield Bank, then Scarborough Reef does not form part of this group. Nevertheless, in the Chinese conception, the term “Zhongsha Qundao” is not limited only to Macclesfield Bank, but includes Scarborough Reef and other shoals, such as Truro Shoal (Xianfa Ansha), Helen Shoal (Yitong Ansha), St. Esprit Shoal (Shenhu Ansha) and Dreyer Shoal (Zhongnan Ansha) as well. In addition, the term “Qundao” in Chinese can be translated into “archipelagos” in English, thus making the geographical scope of the Zhongsha Islands even wider.
From Prof. Zou Keyuan’s paper, the Chinese Embassy in Manila and other sources, I have extracted the following timeline for Scarborough Shoal:
1279 – Guo Shoujing, a Chinese Astronomer, surveyed the South China Sea. He reportedly used the atoll as the surveying point. China claims that a map dating back to the Yuan Dynasty was drawn of the South China Sea area. This has yet to be publicly presented.
1792 – a map drawn by the Alejandro Malaspina expedition and published in 1808 in Madrid, Spain showed Bajo de Masinloc as part of Philippine territory. This map showed the route of the Malaspina expedition to and around the shoal. It was reproduced in the Atlas of the 1939 Philippine Census.
Late 18th century – a ship named Scarborough crashed against the atoll and everyone on board was killed.
1935 – the Chinese Ministry of Interior published a list of names of islands in the South China Sea. According to Prof. Zou Keyuan, “Scarborough Reef was named according to its original English name, and was listed under the group definition of the Nansha Islands.”
1947 – Scarborough was given the name Minzhu Jiao (Democracy Reef) and was designated as part of the Zhongsha Islands.
May 15, 1956 – Tomas Cloma, who owned fishing boats and a maritime training institute, issued a “Notice to the World” claiming ownership over 53 islands, sand cays, sand bars, coral reefs and their surrounding fishing grounds totaling 64, 976 square nautical miles.
1956 – China protested remarks from the Philippine government that the South China Sea islands in close proximity to Philippine territory should belong to the Philippines.
1965 – a Philippine flag on an 8.3 meter flagpole is planted on the Shoal. The Philippine government builds a lighthouse on the Shoal.
December 4, 1974 – Tomas Cloma signed a “Deed of Assignment and Waiver of Rights” in favor of the Philippine government over “Freedomland” or the Kalayaan Island Group (KIG).
1983 – China renamed Minzhu Jiao (Democracy Reef) to Huangyan Island , but it remained part of the Zhongsha Islands.
1992 – the Philippine Navy repaired the lighthouse and reported it to the International Maritime Organization for inclusion in its List of Lights.
1995 – China occupied Mischief Reef in the KIG. The incident hastened the enactment of the Military Modernization Law by Philippine Congress.
1997 – Two Philippine lawmakers, Roque Ablan and Jose Yap, raised a Philippine flag on the Shoal. Filipino naval vessels barred three Chinese boats from approaching the reef. China lodged a strong protest and warned the Philippines that the incident could complicate friendly ties between the two countries.
May 1999 – Two Chinese fishing vessels sank after accidentally colliding with Philippine navy boats which were in hot pursuit of them for poaching.
2009 – Philippine Congress amended the baseline law. Scarborough Shoal or Bajo de Masinloc is mentioned by name for the first time in a Philippine law, prompting China to protest. Republic Act 9522 classified Scarborough as a “regime of islands” over which “the Philippines likewise exercises sovereignty.”
The fact that China and the Philippines both consider Scarborough as NOT being a part of the Spratlys may help resolve the dispute. Or not.
Sta. Romana agreed with Ambassador Siazon’s contention that because of this, the Philippines could delink the dispute over Scarborough from the dispute over Spratlys (which has five claimants).
This could open the way to bilateral negotiations.
However, the Philippine government has insisted on bringing the matter up with the United Nations for arbitration. China has rejected this.
How to resolve the impasse
In a separate interview, a Filipino academic who is a recognized expert on international law, has suggested that Manila could look at how other countries have resolved their territorial disputes with China.
For starters, he suggested looking at Vietnam and Russia.
While the circumstances are somewhat different because both share actual land borders with China, the international law expert said it might prove instructive on how Manila could negotiate terms with China.
Both Siazon and Sta Romana agreed with this recommendation.
Personally, I believe some bright boys in the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs may now be frantically burning the midnight oil trying to study these agreements in the hope of finding a solution that does not give up Philippine sovereignty over the Shoal.
Sta Romana noted:
This will take quiet diplomacy. Patient talks with the Chinese. The Chinese and Vietnamese have done that with the Gulf of Tonkin. They have a joint fishing agreement and a joint patrol of the fishing area.
They are trying to do the same with the Paracels and Spratlys Islands. It’s gonna take a while.
Bottom-line is, they (the Chinese)want their share of fish, oil and natural gas.
He noted that Vietnam achieved this despite a lengthy history of sporadic warfare with neighboring China.
Vietnam and China have had land border clashes for centuries.
But the year 1974 saw the two nations clash at sea over the Paracels or Xisha Islands. South Vietnam lost one warship and 53 soldiers. China claimed no ship was sank and never released a casualty list.
South Vietnam protested before the United Nations, which advised it to simply give up. To this day, China controls the islands.
What Filipino netizens can do
Sta Romana confirmed to me that the Chinese government is being pressured by its citizens to stand up for sovereignty. He said school textbooks have drummed into every Chinese that the South China Sea islands have belonged to China since ancient times. “It’s become an emotional issue to them.”
This makes it quite understandable why a Philippine website was hacked recently in order to post a message saying “Huangyan is ours.”
But personally, like many of you, I don’t understand why UP was targeted.
The retaliation was instant, coming from Filipino hackers. I’m wondering what the blow-back will be.
I think what the Chinese people fail to realize in turn is that a China flexing its military muscle is likewise a hot button issue for Filipinos. Many have been told in school to beware of and to pray to God that “Red China” never conquers Asia, including the Philippines.
Apart from hacking each others websites, Filipino netizens could also try to make Chinese netizens aware of the Philippine perspective on this issue by posting constructive comments on websites such as the Global Times.
Or by joining the forum in China Daily
Just remember. All Chinese media are subject to government regulation. But since more and more Chinese citizens know English, news in that language is getting harder and harder to suppress in the Mainland.
Ultimately, words are the only weapon Filipinos have to assert their sovereignty. The right words have at times turned out to be more potent than nuclear weapons.
Here are some reports on agreements that China has entered into with Vietnam:
China, neighbors progress in fishery agreements – Click here.
China-Vietnam fishery cooperation in the Gulf of Tonkin revisited by Li Jianwei & Chen Pingping – Click here.
You can download here Dr. Zou Keyuan’s paper entitled Scarborough Reef: A New Flashpoint in Sino-Philippine Relations?
You can look at Dr. You Ji’s paper in Evolving Maritime Balance of Power in the Asia Pacific here.