Scarborough Shoal a Precursor?

Is the spat between China and the Philippines over Scarborough Shoal a sign of what’s to come in the region?

French philosopher Voltaire once wrote a story about the mad behavior of men going to war over a “few lumps of earth.” In Southeast Asia, there are numerous small and midsize conflicts between countries over temples, borders, islets, reefs, shoals, and even puny rock formations that disappear during high tide.

For example, Thailand and Cambodia are feuding over the ownership of the historic Preah Vihear temple and the four square kilometers of territory around it. The conflict intensified in 2008, which led to some deadly exchanges of fires between border troops. It strained the relations of two erstwhile friendly neighbors and, more tragically, it reinforced ultra-nationalism and xenophobia in their countries. Last February, renewed clashes resulted in lives lost on both sides.

For several decades, Singapore and Malaysia contested the ownership of several islands, namely Pedra Branca, Middle Rocks and South Ledge, which are all strategically located at the eastern entrance of the Singapore Strait. Middle Rocks consists of two clusters of small rocks, while South Ledge is visible only at low tide. Fortunately, the International Court of Justice in 2008 recognized Singapore as the owner of Pedra Branca and gave Middle Rocks to Malaysia

The Paracel Islands, meanwhile, are being claimed by Vietnam, China, and Taiwan, while Indonesia and Malaysia have a longstanding dispute over maritime naval borders in the Malacca Strait, which has led to several coastal patrol detentions of fishing boats of the two countries. Recently, the decades-long maritime dispute in the Bay of Bengal, which involved Burma and Bangladesh, was finally resolved by the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea.

The active flashpoint today is in the Scarborough Shoal, located in the South China Sea or West Philippine Sea. It’s a chain of reefs and rocks claimed by China, the Philippines, and Taiwan. China is accused of using its superior force to assert ownership of the territory. Its decision to dispatch oversized quasi-civilian boats near the shoal is interpreted by many Filipinos as an act of bullying and aggression.

But the main conflict in the region involves the resource rich Spratly Islands, which are being claimed by six countries: China, Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia, Brunei, and the Philippines. Tension is permanently high in the area because of the military posts established by the claimants.  If the dispute isn’t resolved diplomatically today or in the near future, it could potentially trigger a broader conflict in the Asia-Pacific.

Could the little spats over Scarborough, the Paracels, Pedra Branca, and the Malacca Strait lead to a bigger clash over the Spratlys? Are they just a sideshow to the main event? Are they just a foretaste of the real tragedy that will befall the region if the Spratlys dispute explodes into a Southeast Asian War? Diplomacy and peace must be given the chance to succeed now.