What are the respective claims?
On the Chinese side they’re primarily historical, including a map from 1279 showing the shoal (the Chinese name for the shoal), and an astronomical survey made for Kublai Khan that is said to have used Huangyan as a point of reference.
In the 1950s the Chinese also published the “Nine Dashed Line”, an outline that lays claim to a huge expanse of the South China Sea. This is disputed by others in the region, which is why the PLA Daily, a military newspaper, made a pre-emptive strike against “the principle of geographic proximity” this month, saying it would “cause big chaos if it was applied in territorial affairs”.
Even Jose Maria Sison, founder of the Maoist Communist Party of the Philippines, thinks the historical claim is absurd, the Philippine Daily Inquirer has suggested. “This would be like Italy claiming as its sovereign possession all areas previously occupied by the Roman Empire,” Sison remarked.
The Filipino case falls back on the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). It says the shoal lies well within the country’s 200-mile exclusive economic zone. China signed up to UNCLOS in 1996 but later announced that it would not be bound by the Convention on dispute resolution.
What is the situation at the moment?
Tempers have cooled a little since earlier this month, when even a news anchor at CCTV found herself succumbing to nationalist angst. “We all know that the Philippines is China’s inherent territory, and the Philippines belongs to Chinese sovereignty,” she gaffed. “This is an indisputable fact.”
The Securities Times thinks China has played its economic cards well, hitting back with a ban on Philippine bananas and suspending tourist visits to its neighbour. But there was also steely determination from the PLA Daily. “If one mistakes kindness for weakness and regards China as a ‘paper dragon’, as instigated by some onlookers, he is terribly wrong,” it growled.
Both sides have tried to reduce tensions, AFP said. Separate fishing bans have been set up in the disputed area as a face-saving way of reducing the chances of confrontation, and Philippine President Aquino persuaded protestors against sailing to the islands last week. According to Reuters, China has also turned to “small stick” diplomacy by sending a flotilla of lightly armed patrol boats rather than warships. But there are too many different agencies on the Chinese side, warns the International Crisis Group, including vessels from Customs, Maritime Safety, Fisheries Law Enforcement and the State Oceanographic Administration. Poor coordination between them could see tensions inflamed.
The likely outcome?
The Global Times doesn’t think much of its Philippine adversary: “Its economic performance is among the worst in this region. Politically, it is not stable either. Its family-based politics has invariably led to assaults against politicians who’ve stepped down. The fever of its domestic nationalism seems delusional, and can hardly last in the long term.”
Still, China’s got to be careful not to be isolated among its neighbours and won’t want the dispute internationalised, warned 21CN Business Herald. But Xinmin Weekly countered that there was little chance of “the US elephant being led by the Philippine ant”.
The international media agreed that other claimants in the region (including Vietnam, Malaysia and Indonesia) will move closer together if Beijing forces the issue.
Manila has also been active in pushing for a new code of conduct on maritime issues through ASEAN, although no agreement has been reached. And last month Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario also appealed to Japan, South Korea, Australia and the United States for help in achieving a “minimum credible defence posture”.
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