LAST week, the Philippines and China formalized an agreement under which the latter gave the former a grant for the construction of two bridges in Metro Manila. This is the “first ever infrastructure partnership project under the administration of President Rodrigo Roa Duterte” between the two countries, reported The Manila Times reported June 22, 2017.
There is also good news on the tourism front. Both the Department of Tourism and the tourism sector of Hainan, China’s southernmost province, see the Belt and Road initiative as resulting in more Filipinos traveling to Hainan, and more Chinese visiting the Philippines. A future direct flight between Manila and Hainan is being studied. About 675,000 Chinese visited the Philippines in 2016, a 37.7 percent increase from the previous year as a result of friendlier relations between China and the Philippines. The DoT is hoping to reach one million arrivals from China this year.
The province of Hainan, incidentally, is where Sansha City, one of China’s newest cities, is located—which should be of more than passing interest to Filipinos intending to visit the island.
Sansha City was created in July 2012 and is envisioned to become “China’s Maldives”. The city’s administrative center is located on Yongxing island in the Xisha archipelago.
The city administers three island groups – Xisha, Nansha and Zhongsha – in an area of about two million square kilometers. We know these island groups better as the Paracel islands (Xisha) and Spratly islands (Nansha). The Zhongsha islands, on the other hand, includes Scarborough Shoal (Huangyan Dao to the Chinese), also called Panatag Shoal and Bajo de Masinloc by Filipinos. In 2012, China seized control of the shoal by a ruse. Scarborough Shoal is included in the South China Sea territories that the Philippines said were unlawfully claimed by China in arbitration proceedings that Manila initiated in the Permanent Court of Arbitration in January 213. The PCA ruled in favor of the Philippines but China has refused to heed the ruling.
Yes, Sansha City “administers” the South China Sea – or the more than 80 percent of it that China claims.
“The domestic power delegated to the city by Beijing seems intended to solidify political control over the disputed islands and other features,” writes Shinji Yamaguchi (Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, April 2017). More people are being moved to Yongxing island, and facilities—such as shops, water treatment plant, ATM machines, badminton courts, tea houses and beer gardens—have been established to make the place more livable. Tourists from the mainland are being ferried over on cruise ships. Upon arriving in Sansha, the travellers – all Chinese citizens from the mainland and vetted to make sure that they are true patriots – join a flag-raising ceremony and sing the national anthem. Patriotic education and maritime protection education are included in the itinerary (Global Times, March 13, 2017).
According to the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the creation of Sansha City was the Chinese government’s way of telling “the rest of the world that China has indisputable sovereignty over this region” (CSIS. September 15, 2015). The Chinese government reiterated this position during a high-level dialogue on diplomatic and security issues held a few days ago between Chinese and American officials. “On the South China Sea issue, China said it exerts indisputable sovereignty over the South China Sea islands and their adjacent waters and has every right to safeguard its sovereignty and maritime rights,” the Chinese government news agency Xinhua reported on June 22, 2017.
According to Clive Schofield, Rashid Sumaila and William Cheung in an August 2016 article in The Conversation, it is not oil or gas that motivates China to insist on its claim over the South China Sea, but rather it is the fisheries and marine resources: The South China Sea “delivers an astonishing abundance of fish.These living resources are worth more than money; they are fundamental to the food security of coastal populations (in the region) numbering in the hundreds of millions.”
China’s appetite for seafood has been increasing from 11.5 kilogram per capita in 1990 to 25.4 kgs in 2004, and is expected to reach 35.9 kg per capita in 2020 (www.seafoodsource.com). The country has at least 2,000 vessels in its long-distance ocean fishing fleet. About 500 of these are said to be operating in African waters. Last April, seven Chinese fishing vessels were apprehended by three West African countries, for engaging in illegal fishing activities. In May, South African authorities reported that nine Chinese fishing vessels went “radio silent,” or turned off their navigation lights and tracking beacons in order to evade detection. Eight of the nine vessels were able to get away.
In August 2016, a new port was inaugurated in Hainan, the largest so far in the province. The head of the local Ocean and Fisheries Bureau told media that this new port is important in safeguarding China’s fishing rights in the South China Sea.
China is walking its talk. So, where does it leave us, just a year after an international arbitration court ruled that China had no legal basis whatsoever for its claims?
For now, we are happy for the grants, the infrastructure projects, more tourists, a market for our banana and pineapple. But what are the long-term implications of simply looking the other way as China exerts its “indisputable sovereignty” over the South China Sea?