The Inbox

Lessons from Scarborough shoal standoff

Panatag shoal

Commentary

By Ellen Tordesillas

Adverse weather situation provided a face-saving exit for both the Philippines and China in the more than two-month standoff over Scarborough shoal, also referred to as Panatag shoal or Bajo de Masinloc  by Filipinos and Huangyan island by the Chinese.

President Aquino said there would be no need to send back Philippine ships to Scarborough shoal if no vessel from other countries would be seen during aerial  reconnaissance that the  Philippine Air Force would be regularly doing.

But before that, careful not to be seen as the one who blinked first, Filipino and Chinese officials issued statements that were both conciliatory and contradictory.

The confusing statements were actually directed to their respective domestic audiences, agitated by nationalist rhetorics the governments also encouraged.

Last June 16, Department of Foreign Affairs issued a statement by Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario announcing that "President Aquino ordered both our ships (Philippine Coast Guard and Bureau of  Fisheries and Aquatic Resources) to return to port due to increasing bad weather. When weather improves, a re-evaluation will be made."

At  that  time, typhoon "Butchoy" was  heading towards the Philippines making  the situation at sea extremely rough. Experienced  seafarers attest that half a day in rough seas would cause even the most sturdy headaches and nausea.

China, which had announced a fishing ban mid-May having anticipated the big waves and the rains that come with the Southwest monsoon at this time of the year, issued a statement welcoming the Manila's announced pull out: "We have noticed the withdrawal of government vessels by Philippine side. We hope this action will help ease the tensions," said Zhang Hua, spokesperson of the Chinese Embassy in Manila.

There was no public announcement of an immediate reciprocal action from China. Behind the scenes, however, China told the Philippines that they were withdrawing two of their eight vessels in the area within 24 hours, which will be followed by two more the next day and more on the succeeding days until all their vessels are withdrawn.

Two days later, China announced that they were sending two ships to assist the more than 20 fishing boats in the disputed area that would be withdrawing because of bad weather.

A glitz occurred in the otherwise positive turn-of- events when DFA  spokesman Raul Hernandez said that China's announcement of a pullout was "consistent with our agreement with the Chinese government on withdrawal of all vessels from the shoal's lagoon to defuse the tensions in the area."

Chinese leadership, who had to deal with the hardline elements of their military, didn't appreciate DFA's statement which could give the impression that they were compromising their territorial claim. Hong Mei, spokesperson of China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs , expressed ignorance of the "agreement" Hernandez mentioned.

Hong advised "Philippine side" to "restrain their words and behavior and do workings conducive to the development of the bilateral relations" between the two countries.

Rather than focus on salvaging its pride, DFA should learn the wisdom shared by an Italian diplomat assigned in China, Danifele Vare: "Diplomacy is the art of letting someone else have your way."

The two-month standoff started last April 10 when Philippine Navy's  BRP Gregorio del Pilar, the country's lone modern naval patrol frigate acquired from the US last year, chanced upon eight  Chinese fishing vessels in the Scarborough shoal while on its way to Northern Luzon as part of the contingency measures for North Korea's rocket launch.

China, which also claims ownership of Scarborough shoal, sent its Marine Surveillance ships to prevent the arrest of their fishermen.

BRP Gregorio del Pilar had to immediately withdraw from the disputed shoal in accordance with the government policy of  "white to white, gray to gray."  "White to white" means civilian ships are to deal only with civilian ships, in this case the Philippine Coast Guard to the Chinese Marine Surveillance. "Gray to gray" means navy to navy.

The incident, which was not actually new according to  Philippine Navy logbooks, was raised to the highest level on the Philippine side with President Aquino himself issuing statements asserting the country's sovereignty over the shoal 124 nautical miles off Zambales province.

All throughout the verbal fireworks, the highest Chinese official issuing statements was  the spokesman of the foreign ministry. No statement was ever attributed to President Hu Jintao or Premier Wen Jiabao. Not even to its foreign minister, Yang Jiechi.

That's something that Aquino and  Del Rosario should take note of.

The standoff had hreatened to spill over to trade and tourism when China tightened the regulation on banana imports from the Philippines and several Chinese tour groups cancelled visits to the Philippines.

Discussions of Philippine and Chinese officials clarified that Filipino  exporters were not exactly blameless sending insect-infested bananas to China.

Tour cancellations were caused by tour groups getting nervous seeing demonstrators in front of Chinese  embassies  in Manila and the United states denouncing China's "bullying" of the Philippines. The rallies have stopped and Chinese tourists are seen again in Boracay and other resorts in the country.

The tension in Scarborough shoal has, in the meantime, abated.  But  there's no assurance that China will not return and attempt to fortify its claim just like what it did in Mischief Reef in the Spratlys.

But the Scarborough shoal standoff has shown that there's no gain for both countries going to war over those unhabitable rocks.

Even if the overlapping territorial claims  in the South China Sea is a core issue for China, it  has  more important concerns to attend to now than taking on a small country like the Philippines. Concerned about its  international image, China does not want to be seen as a bully.

The Philippines, knowing that  it cannot fight  a military and economic giant China, needs to resort to other mechanisms to protect its territorial integrity.

Del Rosario raised again the idea of  bringing  the issue to the United Nations International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea, a conflict mechanism that  China has ruled out  preferring to deal with the issue  bilaterally.

The Philippines continues to "study" that option fully aware that it's an  ace or resource more effective kept in reserve rather than used.

Loading...

Editor’s note:Yahoo Philippines encourages responsible comments that add dimension to the discussion. No bashing or hate speech, please. You can express your opinion without slamming others or making derogatory remarks.

  • Lupita Nyong'o's $150,000 Oscars dress stolen from hotel
    Lupita Nyong'o's $150,000 Oscars dress stolen from hotel

    The $150,000 pearl-studded, custom-made Calvin Klein dress worn by Oscar-winning actress Lupita Nyong'o at this year's Academy Awards has been stolen, police said on Thursday. The gown, embellished with 6,000 natural white pearls, was stolen from Nyong'o's room at the London Hotel in West Hollywood, during the day on Wednesday, a spokesman for the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department in West Hollywood said. "Ms Nyong'o was not in the room at the time of the theft," Deputy John Mitchell …

  • South Korea decriminalises adultery, condom shares soar
    South Korea decriminalises adultery, condom shares soar

    South Korea's Constitutional Court on Thursday struck down a controversial adultery law which for more than 60 years had criminalised extra-marital sex and jailed violators for up to two years. The decision saw shares in the South Korean firm Unidus Corp., one of the world's largest condom manufacturers, soar by the daily limit of 15 percent on the local stock exchange. "Even if adultery should be condemned as immoral, state power should not intervene in individuals' private lives," said …

  • US-led strikes on IS after group seizes 220 Christians
    US-led strikes on IS after group seizes 220 Christians

    The US-led coalition has carried out air strikes against the Islamic State group in northeastern Syria, where the jihadists have launched a new offensive and kidnapped 220 Assyrian Christians. The raids on Thursday struck areas around the town of Tal Tamr in Hasakeh province, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said, without giving information on possible casualties. The town remains under the control of Kurdish forces, but at least 10 surrounding villages have been seized by IS, along …

  • U.S. flies most advanced surveillance plane from Philippines

    By Manuel Mogato MANILA (Reuters) - The United States has begun flying its most advanced surveillance aircraft, the P-8A Poseidon, out of the Philippines for patrols over the South China Sea, the U.S. Navy said on Thursday, acknowledging the flights for the first time. The United States, the Philippines' oldest and closest ally, has promised to share "real time" information on what is happening in Philippine waters as China steps up its activities in the South China Sea. China claims most of …

  • National Geographic 'Afghan girl' in Pakistan papers probe
    National Geographic 'Afghan girl' in Pakistan papers probe

    Pakistani officials are investigating after the famous green-eyed "Afghan girl" immortalised in a 1985 National Geographic magazine cover was found living in the country on fraudulent identity papers. The haunting image of the then 12-year-old Sharbat Gula, taken in a refugee camp by photographer Steve McCurry, became the most famous cover image in the magazine's history. Now Pakistani officials say that Gula applied for a Pakistani identity card in the northwestern city of Peshawar in April …

  • Militants abduct more Christians, smash ancient artifacts
    Militants abduct more Christians, smash ancient artifacts

    BEIRUT (AP) — Islamic State militants seized more Christians from their homes in northeastern Syria in the past three days, bringing the total number abducted by the extremist group to over 220, activists said Thursday. …

  • ‘Noy angered by previous SAF failures to get Marwan’
    ‘Noy angered by previous SAF failures to get Marwan’

    Supt. Raymund Train, who led the SAF team that killed Marwan in Mamasapano, Maguindanao on Jan. 25, recounted in a sworn statement the meeting he and senior SAF officers had with Aquino in Malacañang on Nov. 30. Train said among the senior officers who attended the meeting were then PNP chief Director General Alan Purisima, SAF chief Director Getulio Napeñas, SAF deputy commander Chief Supt. Noli Taliño and intelligence group chief Senior Supt. Fernando Mendez. …

  • IS executioner 'Jihadi John' named as London graduate
    IS executioner 'Jihadi John' named as London graduate

    "Jihadi John", the masked Islamic State group militant believed responsible for beheading of at least five Western hostages, has been named as Kuwaiti-born computing graduate Mohammed Emwazi from London. "Jihadi John", nicknamed after Beatle John Lennon due to his British accent, is believed to be responsible for the murders of US journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff, British aid workers David Haines and Alan Henning and American aid worker Abdul-Rahman Kassig. …

POLL

Should Aquino be held accountable over the Mamasapano operations?

Loading...
Poll Choice Options