Thursday, 26 April 2012 11:48
Those islets and shoals west of the Philippines have again come to the limelight with Philippine and Chinese vessels engaging in a battle of nerves over what both the Philippines and China claim to be their territories.
The standoff began on April 8 when a Philippine Navy surveillance aircraft monitored eight Chinese fishing vessels anchored inside the Bajo de Masinloc, also known as Panatag or Scarborough Shoal. Two days later, the BRP Gregorio del Pilar dispatched an inspection team that reported that large amounts of illegally collected corals, giant clams and live sharks were found in the compartments of the fishing vessels.
China sent three surveillance ships and an armed aircraft that appeared to counter BRP Gregorio del Pilar, with each ship alternately blocking the Philippine ship from stopping the Chinese fishing vessels. On Friday, the eight Chinese fishing boats and a surveillance ship left the disputed Scarborough Shoal with the illegal catch, temporarily easing tensions between Manila and Beijing.
The tensions spiked again the following day after China sent back a surveillance vessel to the shoal and a Chinese aircraft flew over a Philippine Coast Guard vessel facing off a Chinese ship in the area. A Chinese ship also harassed a Philippine-registered vessel, the M/Y Saranggani, with nine French nationals on bboard doing archaeological surveys of the waters in the area.
On Saturday, China escalated the tension when it deployed another Chinese fishery and maritime law enforcement ship – considered the most advanced in its class – near the shoal. It linked up with another Chinese vessel involved in a standoff with a Philippine Coast Guard search and rescue vessel.
Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario said the latest developments came despite his agreement with Chinese Ambassador Ma Keqing not to take any action that would escalate tensions in the West Philippine Sea.
They were not the first – and certainly not the last – confrontations between Philippine and Chinese vessels in the disputed region. The last one was the incident at the Recto Reef Bank (Reed Bank) last year where a Chinese surveillance vessel drove off the Voyager, which was hired by the Philippines and a British company to do seismic surveys.
While we may view these actions as mere show of force, or “duruan” in Pilipino parlance, one pull of the trigger by a jittery sailor can, heaven forbid, start a full-blown shooting war. China and the Philippines should stop their military posturing in the disputed territories before the situation takes a turn for the worse.
While the Philippines must, indeed, aggressively defend its rightful claim to Scarborough Shoal and other islands in the disputed area, it must accept the reality that it cannot afford to engage the mighty Chinese in a shooting war.
Until the country has attained the capability to fight the Chinese or it has the assurance of the United States that it will come to its aid in case war breaks out with China or any other country, the Philippines must turn to legal and diplomatic means to assert its claim.
The Philippines stands on solid legal ground in claiming ownership of the Scarborough Shoal, the area being situated 124 nautical miles off Zambales, which is well within the 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ) under the United Convention on the Laws of the Sea (UNCLOS), which China signed in 1992. In fact, the Philippines calls it Bajo de Masinloc (below waters of Masinloc) and considers it part of the municipality of Masinloc, Zambales.
The rejection by China of the Philippine request to bring the matter for resolution to the International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea (Itlos) should not stop the Philippine government from filing a case with that body, which is tasked by the UNCLOS to settle disputes concerning laws of the sea. The Department of Foreign Affairs should also intensify its efforts to bring its case before international forums such as the United Nations and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean).
Since the Philippines has the best legal basis for claiming ownership of the disputed territories, it must capitalize on this and bring the matter before the appropriate international bodies. In this age many years removed from the eras of Napoleon or the Roman Empire, or the modern-day imperialist aggressors Adolf Hitler and Emperor Hirohito, territorial disputes can and must be resolved peacefully and diplomatically.
It may, however, be naïve to believe that the Philippines will win ownership of the disputed territories by simply invoking the Law of the Sea, knowing fully well that the national interests of the military and economic powers of the world are at play in this dispute. The disputed area will play a vital role in maintaining the balance of power in the near future because it is right smack in the middle of Southeast Asia’s sea lanes and is known to contain rich oil, mineral and aquatic resources.
I’m sure China is aware that the United States will not stand by idly if it attempts to use military power to occupy the disputed islands and would not risk a major war at a time when it is still building both its economy and its military might. It is even highly possible that China is intentionally bullying the Philippines at a time when the country is engaged in military exercises with American troops to see how the US would react to its aggressive military maneuverings in the disputed area.
Despite the assurance by Lt. Gen. Duane Thiessen, commander of the US Marines in the Pacific, that “the United States and the Philippines have a mutual defense treaty which guarantees that we get involved in each other’s defense and that is self explanatory,”the Philippines must not play with fire in this matter, and should pursue the path to peace in resolving the issue.
The Philippines can lead the move in the Asean to push for a zone of peace in the disputed islands. Most of the Asean member-countries are enjoying prosperity and would not want to disrupt the peace nor allow one country to control the important sea lanes. They will be more than willing to support such a plan. And so would the United States, which is trying to maintain mutually beneficial relations with China.
War or any form of hostility should not be an option for the resolution of the decades-long conflict. The Philippines, being the country to be most affected by any kind of action among the claimants, should vigorously lead the path to a peaceful resolution of the crisis. No more posturing, just a sincere desire to resolve the conflict.
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