By Michael Ardaiolo
Photo by Xinhua
The dispute between China and the Philippines over who has the rightful claim to Huangyan Island/Panatag Shoal/Scarborough Shoal, a triangle-shaped chain of reefs and islands in the South China Sea, is escalating. Chinese publications are assuring a fight. The Philippines is organizing worldwide protests. China is banning Philippine fruit imports. The Philippines is claiming the U.S. has its back. India is calling for calm. What’s the deal here?
The shoal in question is 55 kilometers around with an area of about 150 square kilometers. While there is not much to see other than a series of rocks (the use of the word “island” is a misnomer), the area does provide rich fishing grounds.
Why exactly then are China and the Philippines fighting tooth-and-nail over a bunch of rocks? Beyond the desire to own the rights to the fishing grounds, this could be seen as a battle to claim as much of the South China Sea as possible. One-third of the world’s shipping vessels do traverse the waters, but, more importantly, it is also believed to hold significant reserves of oil and gas in its seabed. These reasons, however, are rarely mentioned in the recent media kerfuffle. Instead, this appears to be a fight over sovereignty, an issue the Chinese government does not take lightly.
China claims to have historical rights to the shoal. Using the u-shaped nine-dotted line (南海九段线) drawn in 1947 by the Chinese government, the shoal is firmly in their territory. The Philippines, however, cites a combination of terra nullius, “landing belonging to no one,” and an Exclusive Economic Zone, which stretches 200 nautical miles from its coast.
The media and the military
There has been a consistent maritime stand-off between Chinese and Philippine fishing boats in the area during the last month. China is now sending a small armada to defend its claim with the Chinese media backing up this military might.
In their article, “Never test China’s will to defend sovereignty,” China Daily states: “China has made every preparation to respond if the Philippines government clings obstinately to its wrong course.”
Xinhua News opens their piece, “China fully prepared to respond to anything Philippines does,” with, “China has issued a strong warning to the Philippines not to escalate the tension. Vice-Foreign Minister Fu Ying said China is fully prepared to respond to anything the Philippine side does on the issue.”
Chinascope.org notes, “Zhou Erquan, an associate professor at the College of the Air Force Command, recently wrote an article that was published in China Economy. Zhou called for a military attack against the Philippines, ‘Otherwise they will not awaken.’ ”
The Times of India reports:
The People’s Liberation Army Daily, the official voice of Chinese military, has also published a commentary on Thursday titled, “Never Expect to Take Away Half an Inch of China’s Territory.” It said, “We never tolerate any unreasonable embarrassment with blind patience, not to mention that the issue matters for China’s territorial integrity, national dignity, and even social stability.
“For anyone who tries to snatch the sovereignty over Huangyan Islands, not only will the Chinese government not agree; the Chinese people will not agree; and the Chinese army will not agree.”
Who exactly do we fight now?
There is some question as to exactly what this military display will accomplish though. The Philippines are far from a military power. The Comparativist notes, “Their air force consists of a few Vietnam-war era recon planes and their navy’s flagship is a former US Coast Guard cutter built when Kennedy was president. The most powerful weapon in its inventory is a 3″ diameter gun. Meaning, it would be outclassed and sunk by even the meekest time traveling World War I warship.”
So, why is the Chinese government taking, or at least displaying, such significant measures at this point in time? The supposed escalation has been the hottest topic on Sina Weibo for days now, a portion of the microblogging hub that the censors can thoroughly control. China media watchers are suggesting that this is the perfect distraction for the government to hide behind after the spectacles of failed politician Bo Xilai, blind human rights activist Chen Guangcheng and Al Jazeera correspondent Melissa Chan. These incidents were not reported heavily in the Chinese media, but their stories were certainly finding their way through cracks in the Great Firewall.
According to the BBC:
China, and its foreign ministry in particular, have been at the receiving end of intense criticism recently, whether over the Chen Guangcheng case or the Bo Xilai scandal.
So building up a row with the Philippines may be a way of trying to look tough, distract public attention, and hype a bit of nationalist fervour.
The Philippines strikes back
There are consequences to such military showmanship though.
From QQ News:
According to media reports, on May 11, the Philippines will hold a large-scale anti-Chinese protests. The event is organized by a Filipino expatriate organization. The organization called for a protest at noon on May 11 around the world. Filipino nationals in other countries will congregate at the local Chinese embassy or consulate.
The Shanghai Daily is advising Chinese citizens to stay off the streets in Manila:
On Tuesday, China’s Embassy in Manila posted an advisory on its website asking its citizens to stay indoors, avoid demonstrations and refrain from confrontations with locals, anticipating a “large-scale” anti-China protest in Manila tomorrow.
That coincided with a stern warning from Beijing that China has made “every preparation” to counter potential expansion of the conflict by the Philippines.
And now India is entering the mix:
In an unusual statement that signals India’s growing interests in South China Sea, the MEA on Thursday weighed in on the growing dispute between China and the Philippines. Admitting Indian concern about the events, the MEA spokesperson said, “Maintenance of peace and security in the region is of vital interest to the international community. India urges both countries to exercise restraint and resolve the issue diplomatically according to principles of international law.”
It is too early to tell how or when this will end. China is already beginning to add commercial pressure to the mix by halting imports of Philippine bananas and banning tourism to the island-nation. The New York Times summed up the latest measures:
The extension of the dispute to banana imports came Thursday when a document by the Chinese government agency in charge of quarantining questionable food imports was made public on a Chinese Web site, saying that 1,200 containers of bananas from the Philippines had been held at various ports on the grounds of “quarantine concerns.” The quarantine agency urged the local authorities to increase examinations for harmful organisms, the official Xinhua news agency said.
In what appeared to be another punitive economic action against the Philippines, the China International Travel Service, a large government-run travel agency, said it was postponing trips to the Philippines on grounds of safety. The Chinese Embassy in Manila warned Chinese citizens to be especially vigilant Saturday when it said anti-Chinese rallies were planned in the Philippines.