Over the years, China has adopted a policy toward the South China Sea that is sometimes flexible, sometimes aggressive, and which combines unilateral action, brinkmanship, piecemeal advances and divide-and-conquer tactics aimed at gradually and steadily expanding its control over disputed areas. The incident at Scarborough Shoal is a perfect example of China’s attempt to put pressure on the Philippines, weaken Association of Southeast Asian Nations cohesion, and test the reaction of the United States.
The Scarborough Shoal is a group of rocks and reefs located 123 miles from the Subic Bay of the Philippines, well within its exclusive economic zone (EEZ), and hundreds of miles from China’s Hainan Island (although inside China’s notorious nine-dashed line). Both countries claim sovereignty over Scarborough Shoal.
As The Diplomat has reported, the incident began on April 10, when a Philippine Navy frigate was sent to investigate the sighting of eight Chinese fishing boats. A boarding party searched the Chinese boats and discovered that one of them contained coral, giant calms and live sharks, all protected under Philippine law.
China responded by sending two unarmed China Marine Surveillance (CMS) vessels to the area, which interposed themselves between the fishing boats and the frigate thus preventing any arrest or confiscation of their catch. Two days later, the Philippines replaced the frigate with a Coast Guard vessel; China deployed an armed Fishery Law Enforcement Command (FLEC) ship at the shoal. While diplomatic exchanges were taking place all of the Chinese fishing boats and two Chinese escorts left the shoal. (Prof. Carlyle A. Thayer has a useful roundup here).
Eventually, China returned more ships to the area. By the end of May, there were as many as fifteen Chinese vessels, including seven government ships and eight fishing vessels plus by some accounts eighty dinghies compared with two Philippine vessels including one Coast Guard vessel and one from the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources.
ASEAN, meanwhile, was mute throughout much of this. The Scarborough Shoal standoff occurred around the same time as the 20th ASEAN summit in Phnom Penh on April 2-3, and the 6th ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting (ADMM) on May 29, yet the gathered nations failed to come up with a statement or communiqué in support of the Philippines.
Facing an overwhelming number of Chinese ships and without international support, the Philippines appeared to cut a deal. By June 3, both sides had de-escalated the situation. The Philippines withdrew one remaining government ship in exchange for the withdrawal of two remaining Chinese government ships. Currently, while there are no government ships placed there by either side, although there are about thirty Chinese fishing vessels and no Philippine fishing vessels at the shoal.
The whole crisis began with a Philippine navy vessel searching Chinese fishing boats in an area it claimed belong to its EEZ and has effectively ended with Chinese fishing boats, in the words of Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin, “operating normally in the lagoon free of disturbance” while Chinese government vessels are standing by to enforce Chinese law and continue their “management and service for the Chinese fishing boats and fishermen in waters off Huangyan [Scarborough] Island.”
China, it seems, won the first round, and its actions have severely tested the concept of ASEAN-centrality. A precedent has been set, one that will be repeated when the next opportunity arrives.
Nguyen Manh Hung is associate professor of government and international politics, George Mason University.