wades into China-Philippine
standoff By Al Labita
MANILA - China has beefed up its naval
might around the Scarborough Shoal in the South
China Sea, threatening a clash as the United
States and Philippines hold joint military
exercises in the vicinity of the potentially
energy rich disputed maritime territory.
In a show of force, a state-of-the-art
Chinese vessel, the Yuzheng 310, is now on
patrol near the Scarborough Shoal, raising the
strategic ante as its maritime standoff with the
Philippines heads into a second week. Certain news
reports have suggested as many as five other
Chinese patrol vessels are now in the area.
In contrast, a lone US-made Philippine
Coast Guard ship
remains on alert in a
lopsided faceoff with the Chinese fleet, while
Manila's other warships joined the two-week joint
drills, known as Balikatan (shoulder to shoulder)
the US is leading near the contested islands.
The US has deployed 4,500 marines, the
bulk of them from its military base in Okinawa,
Japan, and battleships in the biggest contingent
since the joint war games began in 1983.
In an unprecedented exercise held near the
Philippine island of Palawan on April 19, US and
Philippine forces rehearsed retaking seized
offshore oil and natural gas platforms. Philippine
officials said the exercise was relevant in the
context of Chinese harassment of energy
exploration teams last year near the contested
The US has issued assurances
that the combined military exercise is not aimed
at any country or rising territorial tensions.
China, however, clearly remains wary. A recent
Chinese military paper has warned that the
US-Philippine joint exercises increase the
potential for an armed confrontation in the
Slated to run from April 16 to 27,
the two-week military maneuver has been joined for
the first time by Manila's partners in the
10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations
(ASEAN), Japan, Australia and South Korea.
Manila is fielding 2,300 troops for the
exercise, now seen as a key component of its
mutual defense treaty (MDT) with Washington.
Signed in 1951, the treaty will be up for review
during the so-called 2+2 meeting of the two sides'
defense and foreign affairs secretaries held on
April 28-29 in Washington.
and confrontation come amid calls for scrapping
the MDT by the political opposition. Leftist
groups recently stormed the US embassy in Manila
and held protests in Zamboanga City, both
denouncing the war games as "provocative" at a
time the Philippines tries to use peaceful
dialogue with China to settle the territorial row.
The Washington meeting, expected to tackle
China's rising use of force in dealing with other
Spratly Islands claimants, including the
Philippines and Vietnam, will precede a one-on-one
meeting between US President Barack Obama and
Philippine president Benigno Aquino.
invited Aquino for a meeting during the ASEAN
summit held in Jakarta last November. In his talks
with Obama, Aquino is expected to press for more
sophisticated military wares from the US to
bolster their strategic alliance.
more naval and air assets to protect our own
territory," Philippine military chief General
Jesse Dellosa recently said. "The whole world
knows that China has myriad more ships and
aircraft than the Philippines."
In a move
that will boost the Philippines' external defense
capability, Washington has already agreed to turn
over to the Philippine Navy next month a second
warship, the refurbished US Coast Guard cutter
The BRP Gregorio del
Pilar was turned over by the US Coast Guard to
the Philippine Navy last December. Now the
country's biggest warship, it was deployed on
April 10 in a bid to stop Chinese fishermen from
allegedly poaching in the Philippine-claimed shoal
off the Spratlys. Chinese surveillance vessels
were soon thereafter deployed, sparking the
The Scarborough Shoal,
situated 124 nautical miles from the nearest
base-point in Subic, north of Manila, is within
the 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone
(EEZ) of the Philippines. It is about 740 miles
from China's nearest point in Hainan province.
In his talks with Obama, Aquino is
expected to offer the Philippine military's
western command base in Palawan, west of Manila,
to accommodate US forces, though its unclear how
such a move would skirt the Philippine
constitutional ban on foreign-run military bases
in the country.
Palawan, west of Manila,
faces the Spratly islands and hosts some
oil-producing wells now operated by Dutch
multinational Shell. China has challenged
Philippine sovereignty over the area by harassing
domestic exploration vessels and pressuring
foreign energy firms given Philippine permission
to explore in the area.
alliance The US had kept mum on the latest
confrontation plaguing the potentially oil and
gas-rich Spratlys, a maritime region Manila refers
to as its west Philippine Sea.
weekend, however, US Commander of the Marines in
the Pacific, Lieutenant General Duane Thiessen,
reaffirmed the US's commitment to the MDT in
response to a question about whether the US would
provide assistance in a scenario where Chinese
forces attacked Philippine units at Scarborough
"The United States and the
Philippines have a mutual defense treaty which
guarantees that we get involved in each other's
defense and that is self explanatory," he told
reporters in Puerto Princesa, the capital of
Philippine Foreign Secretary
Albert del Rosario has tried to drum up
international support for his country's position
in the latest dispute. He has touched on the same
freedom of navigation themes the US has mentioned
in previous statements on the wider Spratlys
China, on the other hand, has
consistently said it will resist any US attempts
to contain its ambitions in the region. While war
over Scarborough Shoal seems remote, the maritime
region faces more instability as fears rise the US
and China could square off in a proxy battle for
influence in the months ahead.
remained intransigent to Manila's repeated calls
for a peaceful approach to the standoff. Aquino
has opposed openly going to war with China, saying
"it will not serve us any good at a time that we
are trying to de-escalate the situation."
While Aquino said his government was ready
to protect the country's sovereignty "to the
limits of our capabilities," he acknowledged that
the Philippines lacks the resources to confront
the Chinese. "Even in boxing, they are 1.3
billion, we are 95 million," he said.
fears that the situation could eventually erupt
are mounting as the Philippines and China refuse
to budge and the US openly wades into the troubled
waters. Though both sides have resorted to
diplomacy and confidence building measures to ease
tensions, talks towards a settlement on the claims
have repeatedly crumbled.
appears to favor gunboat diplomacy. Chinese
officials have publicly noted how weak the
Philippines is in terms of military assets among
the six claimants to the potentially energy rich
Spratlys. Apart from Vietnam, the other claimants
are Taiwan, Brunei and Malaysia.
muscle flexing, Beijing turned down Manila's
latest proposal to raise their dispute before the
International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea
(ITLOS). Based in Germany, ITLOS is an independent
judicial body established by the United Nations
Convention on the Law of the Sea that serves as
mediator for disputes arising out of the
"At day's end, however, we
hope to demonstrate that international law would
be the great equalizer," Philippine foreign
secretary del Rosario recently said.
Beijing, on the other hand, has remained
steadfast in its preference for bilateral
negotiations with Manila. It continues to insist
that the Spratlys have belonged to China since
ancient times and is now showing it has the modern
firepower to stake those claims.
since the ancient times, numerous documents on the
Chinese history have put down definitely in
writing that Huangyan Island belongs to Chinese
territory," the Chinese embassy in Manila said in
a statement issued in response to the recent
Huangyan refers to the
Philippine-claimed Scarborough Shoal where the two
sides are now squared off and the US is
provocatively in the middle.
Labita is a Manila-based journalist.
(Copyright 2012 Asia Times
Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please
contact us about sales, syndication and