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    Southeast Asia
     Apr 20, 2012

China tests the will of the Philippines
By George Amurao

David met Goliath on a tiny spit of rock and sand off the western coast of Luzon in the Philippines earlier this month. The giant here is China, with the Philippines as the puny David, and the confrontation occurred in Scarborough Shoal, an atoll-like collection of reefs, rocks and sandbars in the South China Sea.

National Coast Watch System observers in Luzon have for the past three weeks watched the presence of Chinese fishing vessels in the area, which the Philippine government claims is within its 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ). A Philippine Navy aircraft confirmed on April 8 that eight Chinese boats were inside the lagoon of Scarborough Shoal.

The Philippine Navy dispatched its newest flagship, the frigate


BRP Gregorio del Pilar, to confront the perceived Chinese intruders. Upon arrival at the shoal, the ship sent a boarding party that gathered evidence showing that the boats contained corals, giant clams, and live sharks, all apparently harvested from Philippine waters.

Before the fishermen were arrested, however, two vessels from China's maritime surveillance unit, the Fisheries Law Enforcement, arrived on the scene and placed themselves between the Philippine frigate and the fishing boats.

On learning of the situation, Philippine Foreign Secretary Alberto del Rosario summoned Chinese ambassador Ma Keqing on April 11 and filed a diplomatic protest on China's alleged intrusion of Philippine waters. In turn, Ma charged the Philippines with encroaching on Chinese territory and demanded that the warship be pulled out of the shoal.

The Scarborough Shoal, like the disputed Spratlys Islands to the south, is a festering regional flashpoint. Unlike the Spratlys, though, only the Philippines and China lay claim to the territory (ironically named Panatag Shoal, or "Calm Shoal" by the Philippines), which energy analysts believe could be abundant with natural gas.

Chinese fishing vessels have always trawled in the area, playing a cat-and-mouse game with the Philippine Coast Guard. China used to place markers on bare rocks jutting out of the waters while Philippine warships subsequently destroyed them with naval gunfire. The ongoing stand-off is not only the latest but also the one with the highest profile, similar to the recent tensions over the disputed Spratlys.

As both sides publicly exchanged charges and demands for withdrawal, backroom channels were utilized to defuse an incendiary situation. Though the Philippine frigate has enough firepower to take on the two Chinese ships - and a third one that joined its sister ships later on - a firefight would only prompt China to send reinforcements from its military bases in nearby Hainan island and flex its naval superiority.

In a meeting held in Malacanang earlier that week, President Benigno Aquino reiterated his policy of "white to white, gray to gray", which meant that "white" or civilian ships would have to deal with civilian ships while "gray" or naval ships could only face their foreign counterparts.

By April 12, the tense situation appeared on the verge of de-escalating. A Philippine Coast Guard search and rescue ship, BRP EDSA, relieved the BRP Gregorio del Pilar. The frigate then proceeded to Poro Point naval station in La Union on Luzon's west coast for refueling and replenishment.

The following day, Philippine officials announced that two of the Chinese ships and the eight fishing boats had slipped away from the shoal. Though no marine resources were confiscated or Chinese fishermen were arrested, the Philippine government reiterated that it had not backed down in its confrontation with the Chinese. At the time, one ship from each country's coast guard service was left at the shoal.

This image was reinforced on April 14 when one of the Chinese maritime surveillance vessels returned to the shoal, outnumbering the lone Philippine coast guard ship. An unidentified Chinese aircraft also reportedly did fly-bys in the area. The Chinese ships and aircraft were also accused of harassing a Philippine-registered yacht, M/Y Sarangani, which had been conducting an archaeological survey in the vicinity.

As of April 19, the impasse continued as the M/Y Sarangani incident prompted the Philippine government to lodge another diplomatic protest with China. The Chinese Embassy in Manila fired back by claiming as its own the shipwreck that the crew aboard the M/Y Sarangani had been surveying. It also called again for the withdrawal of the Philippine Coast Guard ship from the shoal.

Communications Secretary Ricky Carandang told reporters on April 18 that the government would not pull out the BRP EDSA from the shoal, and reiterated that China should be the one to withdraw. This particular stand-off, some analysts reckon, could result in a moment of strategic truth: Can the Philippine government, through a combination of diplomatic skills and military maneuvers, take a firm stand against China's intrusions into its territory?

If a naval battle were to break out, the Philippines could only field its former US Coast Guard cutter that saw action in the Vietnam War, a handful of second-hand patrol boats from the United Kingdom and South Korea, and other older vessels, some dating back to World War II. Such a flotilla would not stand a chance against the Goliath of China's bolstered navy.

The Philippine Air Force, meanwhile, has practically no modern jet fighters to achieve air superiority, much less meet head-on any fighter jets deployed from Chinese bases in nearby Hainan island.
Non-committal allies
On the diplomatic front, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has yet to declare openly a common stand with the Philippines in its territorial disputes with China, notwithstanding Aquino's call for support during an ASEAN summit recently held in Phnom Penh. It is not surprising, considering that all of ASEAN's 10 members are increasingly dependent on China for trade and investment.

The United States has also been quiet on whether it would honor the Mutual Defense Treaty it signed with its Philippine ally should a shooting war break out with China. The US Congressional Research Service said the US-Philippine Mutual Defense Treaty is open to interpretation, with the US obliged to respond only if a foreign military attacks Philippine territory or military forces. By this definition, the obligation for the US to protect Philippine claims to the Spratlys or Scarborough Shoal is uncertain.

With support from its neighbors and superpower ally ambiguous, the Philippines is bulking up its own military muscle. Manila's revenues from the natural gas fields off Palawan have given Aquino the fiscal confidence to plan for more arms acquisitions. Though the planned deal for a squadron of second-hand F-16 fighters from the US may or may not come to fruition, the Philippine Air Force is eyeing the purchase of brand new trainer jets from either South Korea, Italy or Russia that can be configured into fighters and beef up the Philippines' airpower for deterrence purposes.

Washington is working in Manila's corner through other means. Last year, it facilitated the Philippines' acquisition of the US Coast Guard's largest cutter, now renamed the BRP Gregorio del Pilar, the same ship that confronted the Chinese at Scarborough.

A sister ship is due to be acquired in the middle of this year and there is an ongoing deal for the purchase of a third sister ship in the latter part of 2012. Unlike the BRP Gregorio del Pilar, sources said there is a strong possibility that these sister ships will come with their weapons and electronics systems intact.

Amid the tensions, the US also pushed through with the annual Balikatan ("Shoulder-to-Shoulder") joint military exercise that started on April 16 and involved 2,000 Filipino soldiers and sailors and 4,000 personnel from the US armed forces. It is no coincidence that the exercise was held off the coast of Palawan, just a few nautical miles from the disputed Spratlys.

For now, Aquino seems keen to stay the diplomatic course. The withdrawal of the BRP Gregorio del Pilar from the shoal and replacement with a coast guard vessel to match the presence of the Chinese "white" maritime surveillance ship signified his government's willingness to defuse the situation.

Aquino is also enjoying popular domestic public opinion over his handling of the issue, as reflected in messages posted in online news portals and forums, and the comparative dearth of criticism from local media outlets. Surprisingly, even left-leaning politicians have aired support for Philippine claims to the Scarborough Shoal.
Manila believes strongly it holds the moral and legal upper hand in the dispute, considering that Scarborough Shoal falls within territories provided for under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea against the more dubious historical claims insisted on by China.

The Philippines also stands to win in the court of international public opinion. While China played the role of bully by sending additional vessels and aircraft and harassing a Philippine civilian boat in the vicinity, the Philippines was seen as trying to de-escalate the situation. Filipino diplomats' calls for bringing the dispute before an international tribunal would also resonate positively with other claimants in Southeast Asia.

Despite China's aversion to the involvement of "outside parties" in the maritime dispute, the fact that the South China Sea is a vital sea lane for trade and commerce that affects the US and other countries makes it impossible to limit any negotiations only to the contending parties.

Political analysts have pointed out that China may be painting itself into a diplomatic corner in its attempts to lay exclusive claim to the South China Sea and its resources and risks eroding the "soft power" gains it made through fostering trade ties to regional countries.

At the time of this writing, two "white" ships - one Chinese, the other Filipino - are still squared off against each other at Scarborough Shoal. Tensions may have lowered a notch with the withdrawal of the other ships and fishing boats, but both countries are still scrambling for an acceptable end-game to the stand-off.

The question now is not who will blink first but rather how both governments can secure a win-win situation.

For the Philippines, the government has been given a chance to draw up a new template for handling Chinese intrusions in disputed territories that could be a model for its Southeast Asian neighbors. That is on the assumption that the situation does not escalate into a shooting war where the smaller claimant is outgunned and ousted by the bigger.

George Amurao, a former journalist in Manila, until recently worked for the Southeast Asian Press Alliance. He is now with Mahidol University International College in Bangkok, Thailand.

(Copyright 2012 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

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