Will Beijing Follow Manila lead?

The Philippines has found an excuse for reducing tensions around Scarborough Shoal. Will China follow?

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The Philippines has finally found a face saving way to withdraw its ships from the disputed waters around the Scarborough Shoal. Now it wants China to do the same.

Citing bad weather conditions brought about by monsoon rains and tropical storm Guchol, President Benigno Aquino ordered the two remaining Filipino ships in the area, a Philippine Coast Guard patrol craft and a Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources research vessel, to pull out of the disputed waters on June 15.

Earlier, the Philippines and China ordered a repositioning of their vessels in the area in an apparent attempt to de-escalate the situation. As noted in The Diplomat, tensions began on April 8 when a Philippine frigate tried to apprehend Chinese vessels for allegedly poaching endangered marine life on waters that Manila claims to be part of its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). China then sent a flotilla of maritime surveillance vessels to prevent Philippine authorities from arresting the Chinese fishermen, prompting a tense three-month stand-off between the two sides.

Abigail Valte, Aquino’s deputy spokesperson, insists that Sunday’s pull-out was a unilateral decision made “to make sure the lives of the [Filipino] personnel would not be endangered [by the typhoon].” However, Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario told reporters that China had also agreed to withdraw all its vessels from the disputed waters, hinting that a deal had already been cut between the two sides.

On June 17, Valte told state-run DZRB radio that the Philippine government is waiting for China to honor its commitment to withdraw all its ships from the disputed waters. But while the Chinese Embassy has expressed appreciation for the Philippines’ withdrawal, it remains unclear if Beijing will also withdraw its flotilla from the shoal. After all, Manila’s withdrawal allows it to do so without losing face to its highly-nationalistic domestic constituents.

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While the stand-off has given the Philippines some leverage to seek greater military aid from the United States, Washington’s ambiguity on the application of the two countries’ Mutual Defense Treaty on the context of the Scarborough Shoal stand-off, and ASEAN’s reluctance to express support, may have limited its options. The pull-out, therefore, is a necessary tactical initiative on Manila’s part.

For Beijing, on the other hand, the escalation of tensions in the Scarborough Shoal has alienated several Asian capitals, thereby weakening its soft power and aiding the United States’ “pivot” to Asia. To repair such damages, therefore, it’s also in the interests of Beijing to follow Manila’s lead.

Needless to say, the restoration of the status quo ante – that is, making the Scarborough Shoal free of government ships from both sides pending the completion of a code of conduct for South China Sea disputes – should be a win-win solution for both the Philippines and China.

The question now is whether Beijing will see it this way, or whether it will find Manila’s withdrawal an opportunity to cement its newfound control of the disputed shoal?

JJ Domingo is a Manila-based political blogger.