Tensions are intensifying in the Philippines and China over a 55km chain of reefs and atolls named, in English, the Scarborough Shoal (Huangyan Island, 黃岩島), after a ship that ran aground there in the late 1700s, and they could be a precursor for things to come.
Manila claims the territory it calls Panatag Shoal lies in its exclusive economic zone, since it is 230km from Luzon. China knows the shoal as Huangyan — at least since 1983 — and Beijing lays claim to almost everything in the South China Sea.
The Republic of China considers the shoal to be part of the Zhongsha Islands (中沙群島) or the Macclesfield Bank. The ROC included the Macclesfield Bank in its territory in 1947 and in January 1948, the Ministry of the Interior issued a map of the South China Sea Islands that placed the Dongsha Islands (東沙群島), the Paracels (西沙群島), the Macclesfield Bank and the Spratly Islands (南沙群島) within ROC territory.
It seems a small patch of land to be prepared to go to war over, but if you believe the editorials in Chinese newspapers and comments on the Internet, that is just what Beijing is ready do — as it did over the Spratlys with Vietnam in 1988.
Tempers are also pretty heated in the Philippines, but a protest outside the Chinese consulate in Manila yesterday that was expected to draw up to 1,000 demonstrators attracted just a few hundred and ended peacefully.
Of course the fight is not really over an assortment of guano-encrusted rocks, but over control of fishing and mineral resources in the area. Philippine Coast Guard vessels and two Chinese maritime surveillance ships have been facing off near the shoal since early last month after what Beijing said was harassment of its fishing boats. Manila says the Chinese fishermen were hauling in species protected under Philippine law. Even though the Philippine navy and coast guard cannot compete with their Chinese counterparts, Manila does not appear willing to back down despite the threats and bluster coming from its giant neighbor.
However, even though it cannot physically force the Chinese out, Manila has made an effort to ensure that it has the US’ support. Philippine Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin said US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta had assured Manila that the US would honor their 1951 mutual defense treaty, which he noted stipulated coming to each other’s aid in case of an attack on island territories in the Pacific.
The last thing this region needs is a proxy war over rocks in the South China Sea. Beijing may be happy to see nationalist fervor focusing on the dispute over the shoal — instead of on the series of recent events that have embarrassed the Chinese Communist Party in the run-up to the transition of power scheduled for later this year — and with its economic might, it is willing to throw its weight around.
Despite its territorial claims, Taipei would do well to stay out of the dispute, especially given the embarrassing treatment it received from Manila 15 months ago when Philippine officials deferred to Beijing in deporting 14 Taiwanese fraud suspects along with several Chinese suspects to China rather than repatriating them to Taiwan. Manila made it clear at the time that while it valued business and economic ties with Taiwan, it recognized only Beijing when it comes to “Chinese claims.”