Every Filipino should be aware of the real score at the Scarborough Shoal, as the situation is getting very serious. In a unilateral act of aggression, China recently announced that the Spratly Islands, Paracel Islands and Maclesfeild Bank would now be administered by its own political entity called Sansha City. The newly formed administrative body calls for the construction of Chinese military barracks in our islands, headed by no less than a Senior Colonel from the Chinese Military. They have permanently deployed military ships on the shoal and are mounting regular combat-ready patrols of its environs, indicating that they are militarizing the area.
In another act of provocation, the Chinese roped off the entrance leading to the Scarborough lagoon, preventing Philippine vessels from entering. Beijing authorized its coastguards to accost foreign vessels (Philippine vessels included) and to go as far as to physically board our ships, inspect its contents, confiscate it, detain the crew and immobilize the ship, if need be. This authority takes effect in 2013. The Chinese foreign ministry said it has the right to enforce its own coastal boarder defense. China is already acting as if they own our shoal.
In the United Nation's convention of the Laws of the Seas held in 1994, 120 nations signed an accord agreeing that waters within 200 nautical miles from the shores of a particular nation forms part of the said nation's domain. The Philippines is a signatory to this accord, as with China. The Scarborough Shoal is a mere 120 nautical miles away from Zambales, while it is more than 500 nautical miles away from China. International Maritime Laws recognize the disputed area to be part of Philippine territory.
China's claim is based on an ancient map drawn out in the year 120 A.D. In this map, practically the entire body of water that straddles ASEAN is said to form part of China's territory. This is the area claimed by China today. Hence, it has put itself in direct territorial conflict not only with the Philippines, but also with Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei. Should the arcane map be given any credence, then Italy can very well claim practically the entire European continent. It's that preposterous!
Last year, China provoked all five ASEAN claimants by issuing passports with a graphically printed territorial line that encroached on our respective seas. The Philippines responded quickly by instructing our Bureau of Immigration not to stamp Chinese passports bearing China's excessive claims.
The Scarborough Shoal is said to be a prime piece of maritime property for its strategic location as a key shipping lane that traverses Asia. It is also known to be fertile fishing grounds and home to a variety of wild and endangered marine life. But its real allure is the oil and natural gas it contains. Some speculate that beneath its waters are oil reserves amounting to between 20 billion to as much as 213 billion barrels, making it only second to Saudi Arabia. No surprise, China is lusting for the shoal.
The April Stand-Off And The Diplomatic Route
Last April, the Philippine Navy caught eight Chinese fishing vessels poaching live sharks, endangered sea turtles, corals and giant clams in the Scarborough Shoal. The Philippines deployed the BRP Gregorio del Pilar to accost the poachers as they were breaking our laws. As it did, two Chinese ships positioned themselves on the path of the Philippine vessel, preventing it from taking action on the poachers. Later on, more Chinese ships followed. Neither side was willing to back down, hence the stand-off. Two months later, both parties agreed to withdraw their respective ships from the area, an agreement China broke after just a few months.
The Philippines has been exhausting all diplomatic avenues to resolve the situation. We filed a diplomatic protest over the intrusion of Chinese fishing vessels last April, we issued a note verbale to the Chinese Ambassador protesting the establishmentof Sansha City, and another note verbale protesting the passports with the expanded territorial line.
In fact, last April, the Philippines even invited China to bring their claims to the appropriate adjudication party, the International Tribunal on the Law of the Seas (ITLOS). Not only would it allow both sides to be heard by an unbiased tribunal, more importantly, having the issue settled at ITLOS opens the way for the final legal resolution of the claims without resorting to force.
However, China denied the invitation and said it preferred not to ''internationalize'' the issue, but keep the negotiations between the Philippines and itself. Keeping the conflict exclusively between the two governments serves China's interest in many levels. First, it maintains the upper hand in the negotiations given its military might. Second, it avoids the risk of losing its claims at the ITLOS as the tribunal is likely to rule on the Philippines' favor. Third, it precludes the inclusion of stronger allies like the U.S. and Japan in the negotiations.
In the last ASEAN ministerial meeting in July, China apparently used Cambodia as its lackey to prevent the inclusion of the disputed shoal in its joint communiqué. Doing so would automatically put ASEAN in the picture, albeit indirectly. Mind you, this is the first time in ASEAN's 45-year history that it failed to issue a joint communiqué. It's strange because the volatile situation in the West Philippine Seas threatens the very peace and stability of the entire ASEAN. On this basis, the issue should have been included. But Cambodia was adamant on its stance.
Cambodia is heavily dependent on China for military aid, investments and loans.
Meanwhile, China continues to exert pressure on the Philippines by discouraging its outbound tourists from visiting the country, by imposing additional requisites for the entry of Philippine bananas into its ports (which it did last year), by continuing to have Sansha City administer the three islands in the Shoal and building a military garrison in it.
They Did This Before In Mischief Reef
China is invading Scarborough Shoal in the same way it invaded our Mischief Reef in 1995. Mischief Reef is just 131 nautical miles away from Palawan, well within Philippine territory. China built stilt structures on the island while the Philippine Navy was not patrolling the area due to monsoon rains. We protested China's actions but they rejected our claims, stressing that the structures were built as shelter for fishermen. Soon after, more structures were constructed by China which resembled military installations.
The Philippines' decision not to destroy the Chinese structures prevented the escalation of the dispute. This was not the case for Vietnam's Johnson South Reef. Vietnam asserted its claim by force, which resulted in 70 deaths.
My Take On The Issue
I reckon China's claims on the Scarborough Shoal to be part of its strategy of ''creeping invasion.'' Slowly, they are laying claim to more and more territories in the region; first by installing buoys, followed by concrete markers, then bamboo structures, and then by military forts. Anyone who opposes them runs the risk of being quashed by military force or economic sanctions.
As a citizen of Asia and observer of issues surrounding the region, I see China as a bully, preying on its poorer neighbors because it has the military and financial strength to do so. A benevolent big brother they are not. Any nation that does not respect the rule of law-in this case, the United Nation's Laws of the Seas-is, in my view, not a good citizen of the world and should be viewed with trepidation.
But the reality is that the Philippines has neither the military nor economic gravitas to fight China. It is also foolish for us to assume that our allies will fight the war for us. They have too much to lose given the economic importance of China in the world today. The best scenario for us is to settle the matter in a court of law (the ITLOS). The ITLOS, after all, is the proper venue to flesh out such disputes. This way, no one is put in a disadvantage. No blood will be shed.
Still, we simply cannot turn a blind eye on what is going on. What's ours is ours, and as Filipinos, we must do all we can to defend our sovereignty. Apart from exhausting all possible diplomatic means to resolve the situation, we, the citizenry, must put pressure on China to concede to settling the matter at ITLOS.
First, let us try, in as much as we possibly can, to avoid patronizing China-made products. It's impossible to call for a total boycott since half the goods available in our stores are China-made. Nevertheless, if we can avoid patronizing them in favor of Philippine-made products, let us do so.
Second, in as much as the Chinese have called for a travel ban to the Philippines, we, too, should avoid traveling to Mainland China, Hong Kong and Macau. There are better destinations in the region that offer equally good food, shopping and gaming. Better still is to travel domestically.
Finally, the most potent way to put pressure on China is to use the power of public opinion. By virtue of our 10 million people scattered around the world, our proficiency in English and our 26 million Facebook and Twitter users, we must tell the world how we are being bullied and how international laws are being defied to advance China's territorial grab. Truth is, what's happening to us can very well happen to them. It's best they are warned.
Patriotic Filipinos must spread the word, here and abroad, through tweets and status updates, how China refuses to honor a United Nation's Treaty, how they refuse to settle the matter in a proper court of law, and how it uses bullying tactics to forward its ''creeping invasion.'' With this and a lot of prayers, China will hopefully concede to bringing the matter to ITLOS.
Andrew is an economist, political analyst and businessman. He is a 20-year veteran in the hospitality and tourism industry. For comments and reactions, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Andrew on Twitter @aj_masigan.