On April 10, two Chinese surveillance ships blocked the Philippine Navy from inspecting poached marine life on eight Chinese fishing boats. A standoff has continued, overlooked as world attention focuses on blind Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng trying to leave Beijing for the US.
Named after a ship that floundered, Scarborough is 350 miles from the Chinese mainland. They are 135 miles off Luzon – well within the Philippines 200-mile or 370.4 km Exclusive Economic Zone.
After 1982, coastal nations' territorial waters were regulated by EEZ. Under the International Law of the Seas Treaty, which China acceded to, a country has the right to fish and tap seabed resources within its EEZ.
Midweek, four Chinese maritime ships and 10 fishing vessels were reported in the Shoal. More will be coming. China seems bent to overwhelm, by sheer numbers, three Philippine boats there: a Bureau of Fisheries research vessel, a Coast Guard rescue ship and BRP Edsa.
“Kill the chicken to scare the monkeys,” a Chinese saying goes. In shoal standoff, Beijing signals other countries – Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, among others – that it claims most waters off its southern coastline.
The Philippines will elevate this dispute to the International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea in Hamburg, Philippine foreign secretary Albert del Rosario said. Don’t hold your breath, the Chinese Foreign Ministry declared. It rejected international mediation. Beijing prefers to deal country by country to wring “recognition for sovereignty.”
Roots of the problem stem from “China's Skewed View of South China Sea,” asserts Asia Sentinel in an analysis dated 23 April. It is a mindset that regards other non-Han people and their histories as irrelevant.”
“South China Sea” is a name coined by westerners. It does no more than describe a sea south of China. The lands that ring it are people of Southeast Asian or Malay stock. Now, Beijing’s claims signal “they may yet go the way of the Tibetans, Uighurs and Mongols, themselves oppressed minorities in a Han empire.”
“Beijing’s stance is doubly unfortunate given the positive role that individual Chinese migrants and their descendants have played in the Philippines for several centuries,” the analysis adds. “When China was closed, its entrepreneurial coastal people found opportunity in the Malay world. Is that era of fruitful interaction over with “a threatening China?”
China claims ownership of the waters is based on a 13th century map dating from the Mongol Kublai Khan. “It merely shows up the ignorance that accompanies the Han version of history, which does not bother with the deeds of “lesser” peoples.”
A map is meaningless in terms of ownership rights. Nor did presence of traders or payment of taxes, to be allowed to trade, amount to “tribute”, let alone acceptance of Beijing’s hegemony.
China’s claim to Scarborough Shoal, in 1932 and 1947, “is more outrageous than British seafarers in the 19th century planting the flag and claiming it theirs. “There was not even a planting of a flag. Nor the setting up of a permanent settlement. Scarborough is uninhabitable. It is not an island which would support a claim to surrounding sea.
Beijing asserts that its claims predate the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. Therefore, it is not bound by said treaty. This “is in the old tradition of Imperial China that all other nations are inferior. (Thus it cannot submit to any outside or independent questioning of its claims.”
China was actually a very late comer to overseas navigation. For more than a thousand years, before its own ships were ventured beyond coastal waters, China’s trade with and travelers to the Malay lands, India, Arabia and the west were being carried on foreign ships – Malay, Indian, Arab.
In the 4th Century, the Chinese Buddhist pilgrim Fa Hsien visited Sri Lanka in Malay vessels from China to Sumatra and then on to Sri Lanka. “Ancestors of today’s Filipinos were trading with the kingdom of Funan, based on the Mekong delta, around or before the year 300 of the present era.
Beijing resorted to the 1898 Treaty of Paris which ended to the Spanish-American war. It referred to the “Philippine archipelago” in a series of straight lines on maps, clearly done to keep it simple and without regard to the actual geography.
One of those lines ran northwards from 116E to 118E leaving the Scarborough Shoal, at 117.5E a few miles outside Philippine territory as defined by the treaty. But a shoal is part of any normal definition of archipelago, not to mention its vast distance from any Chinese-inhabited island.
“That China has to cite a treaty in which Filipinos played no part is evidence of the bankruptcy of its claims,” the analysis adds. “(They’d ) be dismissed out of hand by any independent tribunal acting on the basis of the UN Law of the Sea Convention.
Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore have been willing to submit to third party judgments of conflicting claims, China believes it is bound by no international rules and will deal only with individual countries.
But the Scarborough issue shows “how blatant China’s expansionism has become. The Philippines and Vietnam are the front line states in the Malay battle against Han hegemony.” It is time for Malaysia and Indonesia to show some mettle and stand with them.