The ongoing naval standoff between China and the Philippines at Scarborough Shoal clearly indicates the difficulties in constraining Beijing from unilaterally asserting its “indisputable sovereignty” over all of the islands, rocks, and adjacent waters in the South China Sea. The reality is that China’s actions in prolonging the standoff are a portent of the difficulties that the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) will face in trying to constrain China by negotiating a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea.
The current standoff began early last month, when the Philippines dispatched the naval frigate BRP Gregorio del Pilar to investigate an earlier sighting of several Chinese fishing boats in the lagoon at Scarborough Shoal. An armed boarding party from the frigate discovered that one of the fishing boats contained large amounts of giant clams, coral, and live sharks that appeared to have been illegally harvested from waters lying within the Philippines’ Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).
Two unarmed China Marine Surveillance (CMS) vessels interposed themselves between the fishermen and the frigate, thus precipitating the standoff. China and the Philippines proceeded to trade diplomatic protests over this incident. In an effort to diffuse tensions, the Philippines replaced the navy frigate with the Coast Guard cutter BRP Edsa
China, meanwhile, reinforced its presence by dispatching an armed Fishery Law Enforcement Command (FLEC) ship to relieve one of the CMS vessels. The Chinese fishing boats later slipped away with their catch. On April 20, China further reinforced its presence at Scarborough Shoal with the arrival of its most advanced FLEC ship, Yuzheng 310.
Both China and the Philippines claim sovereignty over Scarborough Shoal and argue that that it’s an integral part of their national territory. Under the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), a rock is entitled to a 12 nautical mile territorial sea. The Philippines further claims that the waters surrounding Scarborough Shoal fall within its 200 nautical mile EEZ.
The Philippines has invited China to join it in submitting claims to the International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea for arbitration. This is an inappropriate forum, however, as the Tribunal can only decide matters of maritime jurisdiction, not questions of sovereignty which need to be solved first.
China’s claim to sovereignty rests on historic rights arising from prior discovery. The Philippines, on the other hand, bases its claims to sovereignty on intermittent occupation and continual administration since independence. This matter could be decided bilaterally by China and the Philippines or by an international court if both parties agree. Neither prospect seems likely given that the Philippines refuses to negotiate bilaterally and China refuses to place the matter before an international court.
The Philippines has thus turned to ASEAN and the United States for support. But the standoff over Scarborough Shoal has provoked a domestic outcry and made it abundantly clear that the Philippines holds misconceived expectations over the roles that ASEAN and the U.S. can play.