MANILA - Tensions are rising again as China and the Philippines bump boats and
trade diplomatic barbs over the contested Spratly Islands in the South China
Sea. Adding fuel to the fire were recent "war games" staged by 3,000 American
and Filipino marines near the hotly disputed maritime territory.
The latest row was sparked by alleged intrusions into each other's claimed area
in the potentially oil-and-gas rich chain of islands, where more than 50% of
the world's merchant fleet tonnage passes each year. It also comes ahead of a
crucial East Asian Summit meeting later this month in Bali, Indonesia where
world leaders will be in attendance and the issue on the agenda.
The latest incident, the ninth since March between the two rival
Asian claimants, involved a Philippine warship that China alleges strayed into
its sovereign waters on October 19. The Philippine ship became entangled with
the cables of a Chinese fishing vessel, which at the time was towing 23
Filipino naval authorities admitted that its warship, the BRP Rizal,
experienced a steering problem that led to its "accidental" collision with the
cables of the Chinese fishing boat, which abandoned the dinghies and
immediately left the scene. The Chinese vessel was spotted near the Reed Bank,
which lies near the island of Palawan within the Philippines' 250-mile
exclusive economic zone stipulated under the United Nations Convention on the
Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).
Reed Bank, which China refers to as Liyue Bank, is the same spot where in March
Chinese patrol boats cut the cables of a vessel operated by the UK-based Forum
Energy. The company was operating under an exploration contract with Manila. In
2005, Forum Energy's seismic data of the Sampaguita area inside Reed Bank
revealed a natural gas find with potential reserves of up to 20 trillion cubic
feet. Earlier exploration of the area in the 1980s was halted due to China's
With those potential riches at stake, both sides have dug in their heels.
Beijing has demanded that Manila return "unconditionally" the seized dinghies,
which the Philippine warship retrieved and brought to its naval base on the
island of Palawan. Philippine foreign affairs officials have said they regret
the latest incident but ruled out issuing any formal apology, reasoning that
the Chinese vessel had illegally poached within Philippine waters.
"No apologies were necessary and none was given," Foreign Affairs Secretary
Albert del Rosario said. He also said the disposition of the dinghies will go
through a legal process before being returned, a stance that has drawn the ire
of Spratly Island watchers and pro-China propagandists in Beijing.
The Global Times, the English language companion of the China Communist Party's
People's Daily newspaper, warned the Philippines against provoking China into
taking retaliatory military action. "A counter-attack is likely," the newspaper
said in a strongly worded editorial, adding that the Philippines "should
prepare for the sound of cannons" from China.
In the same paper, Chinese columnist Long Tao urged Beijing to wage "tiny-scale
battles" against both the Philippines and Vietnam "to teach them a lesson."
Vietnam has backed the Philippines' proposal to resolve the Spratlys dispute
peacefully in accordance with international laws. The two Southeast Asian
neighbors recently signed a series of cooperative naval agreements in an
apparent attempt to counterbalance China's rising assertiveness in the region.
Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary del Rosario felt it necessary to address
the not-so-veiled threat in comments to local journalists. "It sounds like a
grossly irresponsible, saber-rattling statement in contrast with the Philippine
position which seeks the UN's rules-based solution to the West Philippine Sea
issue," he said, using the official Philippine name for the contested maritime
Show of force
That war of words came against the backdrop of annual US-Philippine military
exercises, known as Phiblex 2011, where the two sides tested and updated their
inter-operability in line with their broad strategic alliance. The maneuvers
were previously limited to ground warfare and focused on counter-terrorism
operations, but in recent years the exercises have shifted to the seas,
including in areas near the Spratlys.
The exercises included a mechanized amphibious assault, small boat raid,
parachute operations, combined arms exercises utilizing aircraft and mortars,
and artillery and live-fire training, according to the US Marines website. The
US 3rd Marine Expeditionary Brigade, the only forward deployed marine
expeditionary unit and US's force in readiness in the Asia Pacific region, took
part in the exercises, according to the website.
Certain Chinese analysts have said the shift from land to sea is deliberately
provocative and has exacerbated tensions between and among Spratly Island
claimants, which also include Brunei, Taiwan and Malaysia. The mouthpiece
Global Times wrote in a recent editorial that the US-Philippine military drills
near the Spratlys "provide no better excuse for China than to strike back".
Despite the show of force, US and Filipino military officials gave their
assurances that the nearly three weeks of drills held in October were not held
to address security issues specific to the Spratlys.
"I don't think this exercise will have any adverse implication on the security
situation in the region," Philippine Marine Corps deputy commandant Brig Gen
Eugenio Clemen said. "We have been doing this for years," he said, apparently
referring to critics' claims that the war games are directed against other
In a recent public forum in Manila, former US envoy to the Philippines Frank
Wisner said any future misunderstanding among claimants could be avoided if a
binding regional code of conduct was put in place. "We have noted with concern
that the parties have not yet agreed on binding guidelines for implementation,
a fact that leaves room for misunderstandings and the possibility of increased
tensions," he said.
Wisner, a former US under secretary of defense for policy, said a code of
conduct would serve the interests of all Asia-Pacific stakeholders, including
the US. "The United States is a Pacific power; our destiny is linked to this
region. America's security and economic well-being depend heavily on Asia and
this fact will grow in importance in the years ahead," he said.
Wisner noted that 80% of China's and a large percentage of Japan's and South
Korea's oil is shipped through sea lanes of the South China Sea. "The right of
free passage and freedom of navigation and the orderly and consensual
exploitation of the resources of the South China Sea are matters of huge
importance to all nations," the former US official said.
In the same forum, Chen Shiqiu, professor at the government-affiliated China
Foreign Affairs University, cautioned against US involvement in the Spratlys
dispute. "Internationalizing the South China Sea issue is undesirable as that
will only further complicate the situation," he said.
Echoing Beijing's official line, Chen also said that the UNCLOS is not a basis
for asserting territorial claims as it only prescribes the regime of maritime
zones. "The 1982 Convention on the Law of the Sea has no provisions on
sovereignty nor does it regulate sovereignty over islands of their original
status," Chen said.
"UNCLOS can in no way serve as a basis for a country's territorial claim, nor
can it change China's indisputable legal status as having sovereignty over the
Nansha islands," he said, using China's term for the Spratlys.
He cited four possible scenarios to resolve the territorial dispute, including
resolution by threat or use of force; the "let it be" scenario where claimants
would engage in a "war of words" or actions based on their unilateral claims;
resolution through direct dialogue and peaceful means; and putting aside the
dispute for joint development.
"Joint development will not only bring benefits to all parties concerned, but
also create a favorable environment and atmosphere for settling disputes in the
long run," Chen said. According to him, joint development should be "the most
practical, feasible and win-win way" for the claimants.
That cooperative rhetoric has been contradicted by both sides' recent actions
and without the implementation soon of a binding code of conduct the risk is
rising that a war of words escalates into the use of force in the South China
Al Labita is a Manila-based journalist.
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