A territorial squabble between China and the Philippines over a small group of islands in the South China Sea has not evolved into a going green agreement. But a decision by both countries to implement a ban on fishing in the region has helped to temporarily defuse tensions between them.
From May 16 – August 1, China said it will stop fishing in an area that encompasses the Scarborough Shoal (Huangyan Island to the Chinese), a small group of islands it claims as part of its territory.
The Philippines responded by announcing plans for its own fishing ban in the area. While Philippine Foreign Minister Albert del Rosario said called it an opportunity to replenish the rich fishing grounds, his statement was preface by a comment that was more direct to the issue.
“We do not recognize China’s fishing ban inasmuch as portions of the ban encompass our Exclusive Economic Zone,” Rosario said, referring to the 200-nautical-mile zone granted to the Philippines under the United Nations’ Convention on the Law of the Sea.
More Than A Few Rocks
While the Scarborough Shoal is more than 750 nautical miles from China and 200 nautical miles from The Philippines, it is at the heart of a long-running dispute between the two. The latest showdown began on April 8 when China blocked an attempt by Philippine officials to arrest Chinese fisherman for fishing illegally in the area.
The territorial dispute over the Scarborough Shoal is one of two involving China and the Philippines in the South China Sea. The Spratly Islands, a group of about 45 islands, are also claimed by Vietnam, Taiwan, and Malaysia. The value of these few rocks in the sea, however, goes well beyond fishing rights.
Geologists believe that certain areas of the South China Sea contain enormous reserves of oil and natural gas. “I’ve seen estimates that the South China Sea has oil reserves that are approximately 80% of those held by Saudi Arabia,” said Kim Bergmann, editor of two Australian publications, Asia-Pacific Defense Reporter and Defense Review Asia.
The presence of large oil and natural gas deposits make the region of great interest to the United States and India because their companies are involved in exploring for oil and natural gas – as are the Chinese.
It is also an extremely significant body of water in a geopolitical sense as well. It is the second most used sea lane in the world. “It’s a flashpoint that could have consequences that go well beyond the region,” said Bergmann.
Earlier this month, U.S. security officials met in Washington with their counterparts from the Philippines to discuss its lingering dispute with China over the South China Sea. Philippines Foreign Secretary Rosario said that while the United States made it clear it does not get involved in territorial disputes, he did say Washington affirmed that it will honor its obligations under the mutual defense treaty.
“Washington’s allies in the Pacific want a stable military balance in the region and I think they want Washington to encourage Beijing to pursue its goals according to accepted international norms, “ Gerard Finin, a senior fellow at the Hawaii-based East-West Center told VOA.
Finin said he expects the maritime dispute to be revolved diplomatically. “The key is keeping lines of communications open to avoid miscalculations,” he said.
Washington has outwardly has declined to take sides in the dispute, it does insist on its national interests to maintain freedom of navigation and the flow of commerce across sea lanes in the region. The South China Sea is the second busiest sea lane in the world.
U.S. President Barack Obama, in a joint press conference with Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda on April 30th, referred to the maritime dispute, urging China to “abide by international rules and norms.“ He specifically mentioned maritime disputes, encouraging China to ensure “small countries and large countries are respected in international forums.
"All of our actions are not designed to in any way contain China, but to ensure they are part of a broad international community in which rules and norms are respected and in which all countries can prosper and succeed," Obama said.
China’s foreign ministry has repeatedly warned the United States to stay out of the dispute. More recently, the chief publication for China’s military, The Liberation Army Daily, charged “U.S. statements have provided the Philippines with room for strategic maneuver and to a certain extent has increased the Philippines’ chips to play against us, emboldening them to take a risky course.”
The East-West Center’s Gerard Finin agrees U.S. involvement in the dispute carries certain risks. “The Chinese tend to see U.S. involvement in the region as something of a challenge, if not a threat to long-term Chinese sovereignty.”
The Law of the Sea
In making its claim of sovereignty over the Scarborough Shoal and the Spratleys,
China may be seen as making some extreme interpretations of the Law of the Sea Convention. It can, after all, claim to be a signatory to the convention when talking about international law and the sea. The United States cannot.
“Those positions have been regularly contested by the United States and its allies, but because the United States is not a party to the convention, it is often being faced by arguments by China that it is not in the position to seek to interpret or apply the treaty because it is not a party to the treaty,” said International law professor Don Rothwell of Australian National University.
“The treaty has 162 state parties, which ranks it very highly amongst treaties around the world,” said Rothwell. “I think the justification for the United States staying outside the treaty now has very little merit.”
Rothwell notes the treaty does have a compulsory dispute resolution mechanism. But he also notes there are a number of opt-out provisions when it comes to fundamental issues such as state sovereignty.