China and the World

Rocky relations

Why tensions are rising with the Philippines

Rocky relations

As is the case for almost all of the disputed geographical features in the South China Sea – including the ocean itself – the Scarborough Shoal goes by at least three different names.

Internationally it is known by the name of the British tea ship – “The Scarborough” – that foundered on its rocks in the late eighteenth century. In the Philippines it’s known as Panatag Shoal, while in China it is called Huangyan Island. The Taiwanese have their own view too, designating it with a pre-revolutionary Chinese title that means ‘democracy reef’.

So handle with care. Indeed, how one refers to the rocky ring 130 nautical miles west of the Philippines’ largest island, Luzon, is to suggest its rightful owner.

This month the shoal – technically more of an atoll – has been at the centre of more than a war of words.

Since April 8, China and the Philippines have been involved in a tense maritime stand-off. The mood has not been eased by the onset of the Philippines’ annual war games with the US this week, only a few hundred miles away. While Philippine President Benigno Aquino denied that these were aimed at China, many in Beijing took it otherwise. “It is clear what the real target of the joint exercises is, even if the two sides deny it,” the Global Times wrote in an editorial on Tuesday.

China claims almost all of the South China Sea even though its southern extremity is over 1,000 kilometres from the nearest Chinese landmass.

Other nations claim other parts of the sea, with some areas, such as the Spratly Islands, disputed by multiple parties.

The current stand-off began when the Philippine coastguard spotted a group of Chinese fishing vessels working in an area around the contested shoal. The Philippine navy was then called in, but when its largest and newest vessel, the 378-foot BRP Gregorio del Pilar, attempted to approach the trawlers and arrest the crew, it was blocked by two Chinese maritime surveillance ships.

Eventually the del Pilar stood down and the trawlers were allowed to return home but – as of Tuesday, night – both sides still had at least one coastguard ship in the area. There were also reports from the Philippines that Chinese aircraft had been “buzzing” a nearby research vessel.

While cooler heads seem to have prevailed thus far, more hawkish commentators back in China have been demanding that the Manila government is taught a “painful lesson”.

“China should exhibit its superpower in the clash with the Philippines this time. It is a fact that the difference in strength between China and the Philippines is huge, at the very least China should not be ignored and humiliated,” insisted a Chinese language editorial in the Global Times.

On Wednesday Beijing gruffly rejected a request by the Philippines to take the dispute to an international court.

Even so, a few newspapers advised a more conciliatory approach.

“It is not giving up on one’s stance to insist on solving problems through negotiations. It is certainly not an act of weakness,” the Beijing News suggested.

Those calling for a more bellicose stance might also want to take a look at an enlightening study from John Garnaut in Foreign Policy magazine this week, which suggests that the Chinese military’s most pressing battle is an internal one, against corruption and indiscipline.

The review, which includes claims that the armed forces are “rotting from within”, also quotes complaints from Liu Yuan, a three-star general and top official in the People’s Liberation Army’s General Logistics Department, that “malignant individualism” is harming the military, with officers only following the orders that suit them.

“No country can defeat China,” Liu told 600 officers in late December. “But our own corruption can destroy us and cause our armed forces to be defeated without fighting.”

“We are falling like a landslide!” Liu warned in one of his recent speeches. “If there really was a war,” he asked his subordinates, “who would listen to your commands or risk their life for you?”

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