Ayungin dilemma

A dilapidated Philippine Navy ship LT 57 (Sierra Madre) with Philippine troops deployed on board is anchored off Second Thomas Shoal (local name Ayungin Shoal) Saturday, March 29, 2014 off South China Sea. An hour from the shoal, the Chinese coast guard ship closed in on the Philippines supply vessel and twice crossed its bow. (AP Photo/Bullit Marquez)

The Ayungin Shoal recently came into focus in the Philippine public mind when Chinese coast guard ships prevented a Philippine civilian government boat from provisioning the marine outpost aboard the derelict BRP Sierra Madre. The latter was intentionally grounded by the Philippines in 1999, four years after the Chinese troops seized the nearby Mischief Reef and started building a permanent outpost. It is now a flashpoint in the current political tussle between the People’s Republic of China and the Philippines.

The Ayungin Shoal is a small submerged formation that forms part of the Spratly Island group, and about 200 kilometers west of Palawan. The Philippines considers it as part of its continental shelf and within its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) as defined in the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). China, however, claims that it is within its “territorial waters” as indicated in its so-called “Nine-Dash Line” map submitted to the UN in 2009. It has since added a 10th dash east of Taiwan, close to the Japanese island of Yonaguni.

Judge Gao Zhiguo, China’s appointee to the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea, said that the dashed line has three meanings: first, ‘it represents the title to the island groups that it encloses’; second, ‘it preserves Chinese historic rights in fishing, navigation, and such other marine activities as oil and gas development in the waters and on the continental shelf surrounded by the line’; and third, it may serve as a basis for ‘potential maritime delimitation lines’.

This seems to hint at two things. First, that China is holding on to its claim of territoriality insofar as island groups are concerned, particularly the Paracels (Xisha Qundao) and Spratlys (Nansha Qundao) and, based on “historic rights,” insofar as waters and continental shelf within the line. Second, it is willing to negotiate maritime delimitation lines. The latter, I suspect, is the one it is willing to open to bilateral negotiations, hence the dash lines.

Ayungin Shoal, in this sense, is currently beyond negotiations as China’s claim to it is a matter of it being a part of the Nansha Qundao and a “historic right.”

On the other hand, the UNCLOS does not give much weight to “historic right.” Nor did Japan, the last occupier who annexed the Spratlys during World War II, turned over the latter to anybody. It only relinquished its claim, thereby rendering the Islands without a clear sovereign. Thus China, Taiwan, Vietnam, and the Philippines put forward their respective claims.

Ayungin Shoal, by virtue of its being within its 200-mile EEZ and its continental shelf, is owned by the Philippines if UNCLOS is to be followed. This it hopes to make legally clear when it brought the issue before the International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea (ITLOS), the arbitration body created by UNCLOS. It asserts in its memorial that China’s claim, in contrast, does not hold much water.

There is also the matter of the marooned but still-commissioned BRP Sierra Madre of the Philippine Navy. Technically speaking, it is covered by the Mutual Defense Treaty between the Philippines and the United States. China is not sure what the latter’s response would be if there is an attack on the ship.

However, short of an overt military attack, China is doing its best to deny provisioning of the BRP Sierra Madre and to pressure the Philippines to abandon it. A game of patintero or a tag game therefore ensues, becoming more dangerous as a ticking time bomb.

The situation can still be resolved in a bilateral negotiation process. However, Philippines hope to have a favorable  ITLOS decision before it does so because of international recognition of its claim.

China faces a dilemma in Ayungin Shoal and other contested areas. If it waits for the ITLOS—which may decide against it—it would have tacitly bound itself to UNCLOS and risk a rogue state reputation if it asserts its claim in the South China Sea. If its militarily acts now, it may face international isolation.

It may do nothing in the face of this dilemma, and wait for favorable situations later. This has its own dilemma, as it already aroused wariness and distrust among its Southeast Asian neighbors that border South China Sea. Most of them prepare for any eventuality.

Ayungin stands as the symbol of Philippines’ determination to defend its territory. It may well represent a line in the shoal.