IT is important and illuminating to remember antecedents in sorting out the new situation in Scarborough Shoal. The situation is different when you view it from a perspective which includes Presidents who have already departed from office, instead of just the new incumbents. Policies change when governments change.
The twin departure of Benigno Aquino III and Barack Obama from office, and the accession to office of Rodrigo Duterte have combined in emboldening President Xi Jinping of China to undertake his new plan to build a structure on Scarborough Shoal, in a major policy shift from previously excluding the shoal from its island-building in the South China Sea (SCS).
Before this development, it was understood by all parties (China, the US and the Philippines) that there was a red line drawn over Scarborough that made it forbidden to build structures on the shoal.
China had an initial plan to start reclamation in Scarborough as early as June 2016, but it was stopped by the United States.
According to Defense Secretary Defin Lorenzana, the US military told the Philippine military (AFP) that US surveillance had monitored Chinese vessels being loaded with soil for apparent moving to Scarborough. The Americans told the Chinese: don’t build on the shoal. The US considers reclamation in Scarborough as an unacceptable change in the situation in the disputed SCS waters.
When Obama’s term ran out in January 2017, the US pivot (rebalancing) to Asia petered out unceremoniously. A new man (Donald Trump) took over the US presidency.
When Benigno Aquino III exited from office in June 2016, a loud critic of China’s actions in the SCS went silent; but he left behind him a resounding Philippine victory in the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, which rejected China’s claims over rocks and land formations in the SCS and dismissed its nine-dash line map.
When Duterte came to office and quickly declared his government’s intent to mend relations with China, and to move the Philippines closer to China, and away from the US, China started making plans for reclamation work and building a structure (an environment monitoring station) on Scarborough.
Those plans are now set for execution.
This development has impelled the Philippines to mobilize for action to protest and stop the Chinese construction.
Leading the stop–China effort are Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana and Supreme Court Associate Justice Antonio Carpio.
The protest has been hampered, however, by President Duterte’s surprisingly timorous stand on Scarborough.
When asked by the media how he views the situation, he asked the media rhetorically, “What do you want me to do? Declare war with China? I can’t.”
On that note, Scarborough became surreal.
1. Facts about Scarborough
To avert our drowning in surrealism, we should get serious and sort out the situation, in order to sift the facts from the fears, the chaff from the grain, and the real alternatives from the bluster.
President Duterte’s reaction to China’s plans is inexcusably muddled.
Instead of proclaiming Philippine rights and interest in the shoal as part of its exclusive economic zone and by virtue of an international court ruling, he diverted the issue toward talk of war. And he compounded the mistake by declaring that the Philippines cannot afford a war with China. He raised fears of losing all our military and police and the prospect of national destruction.
This flies against the facts about Scarborough that are recognized internationally.
The Scarborough Shoal is within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). But it was declared as a common traditional fishing ground for neighboring countries in The Hague court ruling in July 2016.
Under Republic Act 9522, the Philippine Congress declared Scarborough Shoal part of Philippine national territory.
Scarborough was the site of a standoff between the Philippines and China in 2012 when the Philippine Navy tried to arrest Chinese poachers in the area.
In 2015, the Philippine government expressed concern over China’s increasing number of boats present in Scarborough.
It was in this light that Scarborough Shoal became a “red line” for both the United States and the Philippines.
The shoal has been guarded by the Chinese Coast Guard since the standoff in 2012, but warmer ties with China have allowed Filipinos to fish freely again in the area in 2016.
2. Chinese interest in Scarborough
Why is China so interested in Scarborough Shoal?
In his best imitation of a security expert, Filipino Supreme Court Associate Justice Antonio Carpio says the disputed shoal is a strategic location for China. If a military base is built in Scarborough Shoal, China could control the Bashi Channel and allow its submarines based in Hainan to have access to the Pacific Ocean.
Land reclamation in Scarborough will in turn allow China to have a triangle of airbases that will enforce an air defense identification zone in the South China Sea, Carpio contends.
3. Five-point plan in dealing with China
Instead of scaring ourselves with war talk, Justice Carpio suggested to President Duterte a practical five-point plan for dealing with China effectively on Scarborough.
Carpio’s plan, if adopted, would enable our government to hurdle the difficult questions on Scarborough without neglecting national rights and risking outright conflict.
The five points are:
First, the Philippine government should file “a strong formal protest against the Chinese building activity” if it takes place.
Carpio explained that the Vietnamese took this approach recently when China sent cruise tours to the disputed Paracel Islands.
Second, DU30 can “send the Philippine Navy to patrol Scarborough Shoal.” Should the Chinese attack our troops, the Philippines can “invoke the Philippine-US Mutual Defense Treaty, which covers any armed attack on Philippine Navy vessels operating in the South China Sea.”
Third, DU30 can “ask the United States to declare that Scarborough Shoal is part of Philippine territory for purposes of the Philippine-US Mutual Defense Treaty”.
To back up this point, Carpio cited a document, entitled, “The South China Sea Dispute: Philippine Sovereign Rights and Jurisdiction in the West Philippine Sea.” The paper says that from the 1960s to the 1980s, American and Philippine militaries used Scarborough Shoal “as an impact range for their warplanes and warships.” American and Philippine authorities had issued Notices to Mariners worldwide whenever they would hold “bombing runs or gunnery exercises”.
Not country protested these military activities.
Fourth, Duterte can “accept the standing US offer to hold joint naval patrols in the South China Sea,” which will “demonstrate joint Philippine and US determination to prevent China from building on Scarborough Shoal.”
Finally, President Duterte should “avoid any act, statement, or declaration that expressly or impliedly waives Philippine sovereignty to any Philippine territory in the West Philippine Sea.”
4. Failure to consult
President Duterte muddled the Philippine response on Scarborough because of his failure to consult with his national security adviser and his defense secretary before blurting it out. These two officials are military men by training and their time has been spent in preparing to deal with situations like the one facing us now in Scarborough.
No one wants war with China, and neither would China want war with us over the shoal.
DU30 seems to talk of war in the hope of ending all argument, but the fact is China’s plan on Scarborough, if implemented, will open a huge argument between our two countries, wherein Filipinos will never stop talking, just as they have never stopped talking about Sabah.
It is imperative that the President present clearly and coherently our government’s considered position on Scarborough and our intent to protect our national interest there.
The President is delusional if he thinks Philippine rights and interest can be shelved because of China’s military might.
This is music to the ears of a bully.
When Duterte was elected, Filipinos thought they finally got a tough leader as their President. They thought they got proof of toughness when DU30 cursed Obama for criticizing his war on drugs.
DU30 says he cannot stop China from doing what it wants in Scarborough. We know someone who can. Ironically, his name is Uncle Sam.