China, Philippines in Standoff
Image Credit: Philippine Navy

China, Philippines in Standoff

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While international attention is focused on if and when North Korea will follow through on its vow to launch a satellite this week, another Asian hotspot is flaring yet again.

The South China Sea, witness to competing territorial claims by Brunei, China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam, is seeing tensions escalate again with a standoff between a Philippine warship and two Chinese surveillance vessels.

According to reports, the incident began Sunday, when a Philippine Navy surveillance plane spotted several Chinese fishing vessels in a lagoon at Scarborough. The news prompted the Philippines to deploy its largest warship, the BRP Gregorio del Pilar. On Tuesday, The Guardian notes that “Filipino sailors from the warship boarded the Chinese vessels for an inspection, discovering large amounts of illegally collected corals, giant clams and live sharks inside the first boat.” Two Chinese maritime surveillance ships later reportedly positioned themselves in between the Gregorio del Pilar and the Chinese fishing vessels, preventing the arrests of the fishermen.

China has long been accused of using its fishing vessels as proxies for its Navy, and Beijing has often made little effort to rein in its vessels operating in disputed waters. Although the vessels typically have no official connection with the military, foreign officials have indicated there’s evidence that they sometimes coordinate their activities with China’s Navy.

According to the (semi-official and often nationalist) Global Times, Li Jie, a researcher at the Chinese Naval Research Institute, said sending warships to deal with fishery disputes “is not in line with international laws and the UN Convention on the Laws of the Sea.”

“Li warned that the Philippines could not handle the tense situation caused by the standoff, and it is likely that it would not be able to fix the trouble it caused.”

The irony in such comments, of course, is that China is quite happy to play by different rules when it suits. Only last month, 21 Vietnamese fishermen were detained near the Paracel Islands, a disputed area controlled by China but also claimed by Vietnam. Those arrests were only the latest in a string of such moves by Beijing, which has been increasingly willing to assert its territorial claims in the area.

The Global Times also said that reports on the standoff attracted nearly 2,000 comments on the paper’s website, “with most commenters hailing the move by Chinese surveillance ships as a key step to safeguarding the country's maritime rights and interests.”

And how is the issue being viewed in the Philippines? I asked ASEAN Beat contributors Mong Palatino and Julius Rocas for their take on the incident, and whether the Philippine Navy was right to stand its ground.

“The government is doing the right thing because to back down right away would be seen as a weakness on the part of the president, who is already facing a steadily rising tide of criticism on his governance,” Rocas told me. “My own take on it is that the government is betting that by standing its ground and drawing international attention to the standoff, this will be enough to get Washington’s attention and support.”

The idea of U.S. involvement was also picked up by Palatino.

“Unfortunately for China, the latest incident will further convince many Filipinos that it’s being a bully by intruding into the territorial waters off the Philippines,” Palatino said. “Even without the benefit of a full investigation, it could easily be interpreted by ordinary Filipinos as an act of aggression, and the incident could further strains in relations of the two countries. It’s going to push the Philippines closer to the United States.”

“I won’t be surprised if the incident will be directly or indirectly invoked by the government to justify more military exercises between the Philippines and the U.S.,” he added.

Indeed, only today, the Council on Foreign Relations, in a contingency planning memo, warned the United States could be drawn into a China-Philippines conflict “because of its 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty with the Philippines. The treaty states, ‘Each Party recognizes that an armed attack in the Pacific Area on either of the Parties would be dangerous to its own peace and safety and declares that it would act to meet the common dangers in accordance with its constitutional processes.’”

The memo notes that U.S. officials have insisted that Washington doesn’t take sides in the territorial dispute. But it adds that “an apparent gap exists between American views of U.S. obligations and Manila’s expectations.”

“In mid-June 2011, a Filipino presidential spokesperson stated that in the event of armed conflict with China, Manila expected the United States would come to its aid. Statements by senior U.S. officials may have inadvertently led Manila to conclude that the United States would provide military assistance if China attacked Filipino forces in the disputed Spratly Islands.”

One of the defenses of China’s actions regarding Vietnamese fishermen and elsewhere is that China doesn’t consider Paracel Islands disputed territory, so its actions are perfectly legitimate. But this is sophistry – the same could be said of any other nations’ claims. Willfully ignoring this reality will do nothing to advance a diplomatic solution.

The current standoff is some way off of armed conflict. But it’s a reminder that things could get very ugly very fast in the region.

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