OpinionScarborough: Battling over rocks
Scarborough: Battling over rocks
June 24, 2012
June 24, 2012

As the eyes of the nation were fixed on the Corona saga, a US nuclear submarine quietly made its way to Subic Bay in April.

Another threat to the nation’s ‘executive power’?

Claimed linked to the Scarborough standoff, the Left argues the United States is exploiting the situation to regain political clout in the area as it seeks to keep a growing China at bay, solidifying the Philippines’ place as its neocolonial pawn in the region. Their more reactionary counterparts condemn the situation as a breach of national sovereignty and a threat to national security, seeing China’s every move in the area as no less than an act of war.

In between are fisher folk, of both nationalities, who have borne the brunt of the present deadlock. With fishing grounds out of reach in the ongoing dispute, Scarborough, also Bajo de Masinlóc  or Panatag Shoal, is looking much less panatag.

(All Out) War Unlikely

In reaction to what it perceives as a breach of its sovereignty, the Philippines now rallies under the banner of UNCLOS, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which clearly assigns anything within 200 nautical miles (NM) of a nation’s shores as part of its territory.

Scarborough Shoal is 124 NM off the coast of Zambales.

To be fair, China never openly claimed the Shoal for itself until, it claims, provocative moves by the Philippines forced its hand. It has since itself become increasingly hostile, citing a 13th century map and the Mao-era Nine-Dotted Line as evidence for its sovereign territory: the latter spans about three fourths of the South China Sea, or the West Philippine Sea.

Amid sabre-rattling from both sides, the United States has stressed it wants little to do with the situation. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in May’s 2+2 joint defense meeting, called for a diplomatic solution without “the threat or use of force”.

Recent moves belie claims of a neutral stance.

Apart from the latest influx of American troops, the Balikatan war exercises and renewed joint counter-insurgency operations between the Philippine and American armies, possibly the most damning of the accusations of a military build-up by the superpower in the region is the docking of a nuclear-powered, Virginia class fast attack submarine USS North Carolina (SSN 777) at Subic Naval Base since April. This mouthful is clearly not one of the hand-me-down military machines of yore.

The US Navy welcomed the vessel, allegedly among the most advanced of its kind in the world, as part of its Western Pacific deployment. The Philippine Navy denies it has anything to do with the Scarborough standoff.

While it’s tempting to think China and America are set to spark the Third World War approximately 124 NM off the Philippine coast… heads up: practically everything’s Made in China (though with demands for higher, decent wages and a fickle world economy, that’s changing). That the US would dare declare a full-scale war on a country that controls a considerable proportion of its debt, manufactures a hefty share of the world’s goods and remains a global depot of cheap labour for its own corporations  is nigh impossible, at least for now. If America openly views China as a threat, the Dragon is a Frankenstein of its own making.

Paranoia aside, China is a key player in American economic interests, leaving Western powers bound to think twice before clashing swords with the rising Dragon.  It knows this only too well. The future could see China muscle its way forward, exercising growing clout in the region as a much-weakened America looks on with both defiance and trepidation. Then again, China could – at best – take its stance as the benign superpower, content with its place as the premiere mass polluting factory and human rights-trumping sweatshop of the world.

Unless we provoke it otherwise, comfortable in the illusion that America might save the day.

The United States, however, never ratified UNCLOS on which we stake our claim, and is unlikely to defend its alleged ally on such grounds, writes Walter Lohman in an issue brief for the US Conservative think tank, the Heritage Foundation. Secondly, with its troops trickling out of the Middle East, an upcoming presidential election, and public opinion largely turned against any prospect of war, America has its own shores to worry about; while a Europe in the grips of financial meltdown will be reluctant to support its erstwhile military partner across the Atlantic should it come to the brink of war.

China itself has problems within its own borders. Besides, if its unwillingness to condemn Syria out of respect for the latter’s “national sovereignty” is any indication of its respect for our own, then there’s nothing to worry about.

But Scarborough Shoal – and, by extension, the Philippines – remains a strategic location, part of the busiest shipping route in the region, and a clear flashpoint in America’s attempts to rein China in, making it unlikely for either to idle their way through the muddle. Each is bound to make a move, so long as they avoid anything too “confrontational”.

There will be no outright war. It will, at worst, be fought Cold.

Did we give it away?

Our own claims to the Shoal actually stand on weak legal ground on the back of Republic Act No. 9522 (the Philippine Archipelagic Baselines Law), courtesy of former President Arroyo, which effectively redefined Philippine territorial waters in the area to archipelagic waters under UNCLOS, thus downgrading both Scarborough and Spratlys to a ‘regime of islands’. The Shoal is a bunch of rocks and reefs that almost completely disappear beneath the sea come high tide; not an island. According to Kabataan Partylist spokesperson Terry Ridon, this, besides the fact that UNCLOS expressly allows foreign vessels free passage through such waters, should have given us no reason to complain against a few Chinese fishing boats.  Which we did anyway.

And which makes China’s actions – as well as the US penchant for inflaming the situation by stationing naval troops around formerly sovereign waters – perfectly legal.

While natural resources in the Shoal remain open for our use – to explore, exploit, conserve and manage at will – the amended Baselines Law has since prevented us from claiming it with full force, militarily or otherwise. The same goes for Spratlys. “As these territorial waters are now considered archipelagic instead of internal waters as stated in the Constitution, we had effectively ceded full sovereignty to major world powers. The Chinese are in the Spratlys while the Americans are found wherever our archipelagic waters exist”, noted Ridon on online news reports, including one on bulatlat.com.

The Philippine government, however, counters that Scarborough lies well within its sovereign territory as dictated by UNCLOS and claims on its website that “the current action of the Chinese surveillance vessels in the said 200-NM EEZ of the Philippines that are law enforcement in nature is obviously inconsistent with its right of freedom of navigation and in violation of the sovereign rights of the Philippines under UNCLOS.”

The fact that military vessels from both sides now unofficially occupy the area does nothing to assuage suspicions that we somehow started it.  Nevertheless, the Philippine government insists that overfishing and illegal poaching of endangered marine life by the Chinese justify tough measures.

However the Philippines intends to regain its supposed sovereignty, use of force seems out of the question. UNCLOS should make the prospects for a military solution unlikely, but the beefing up of American military forces in the region appears to buck hopes for any UN-mediated resolution.

A Third Way

Whatever the intentions of either China or the US, the Philippines finds itself lost in the dynamics of world power. To discuss the matter solely in terms of territory or environmental protection is to skirt the issue. We are locked in a conflict whose implications move far beyond who owns a bunch of rocks.

It is clear, at this point, that America cannot protect us. At least not in the way many would hope. Relying on an unwieldy ‘ally’ and declaring war is far from wise, adding fuel to the proverbial fire. And as in Spratlys, so here: the dictates of trade and commerce in an era of globalisation trump national sovereignty any day. We might as well embrace the fact.

So yet again the country stands alone. Yet again it is the small man left out and unheard, as local fisher folk find it impossible to access crucial fishing grounds, their boats docked, their livelihood threatened as the standoff turns into a standstill.

Fishermen, ensnared in a geopolitical net spread out across the region.

The least we all can hope for is a peaceful, diplomatic resolution to the conflict on the grounds of international law. Barring weak leadership and a judicial crisis back home, the dispute can and should be resolved with little to no American interference.

But maybe it’s not alone after all. The United Nations happens to figure a lot into all of this, especially in light of the Rio 20+ sustainable development conference this June. The Philippines has made illegal poaching by Chinese fishermen – whose arrest by the Philippine government first sparked tensions – a key point in its argument over Scarborough, alongside UNCLOS provisions. Poaching is in defiance of another UN treaty, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).

Indeed, Rio 20+, UNCLOS and CITES can serve as litmus tests for the supremacy of international law and order over narrow nationalist sentiments – or the interests of interfering, trigger-prone Western powers.

Conflict over resources will only worsen over the coming years as humanity brushes up against serious planetary constraints on several fronts: land, food and water above all. These shortages should, instead of stoke more violence, inspire a collective effort toward a sustainable future built on an idea so simple as to leave us wondering why our leaders and businessmen refuse to get it: share. A principle that should be common sense.

After all, both Chinese and Filipino fishermen have been plying Scarborough shoal, quietly sharing the sea’s bounty between themselves for centuries.

If only politicians on all sides were as benevolent.

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