2012 YEARENDER: PH, China and Scarborough Shoal
MANILA, Philippines - Until a few months ago, few people in the Philippines, China and even the rest of the world had heard of Scarborough Shoal.
The uninhabited rocky outcrop is located about 220 km West of Palauig, Zambales and almost 1,500 km away from the nearest Chinese coast, but the People's Republic claims the area as part of their sovereign maritime territory in the South China Sea.
Territorial disputes like this have been going on in the region for decades, and other claimant countries like Brunei, Malaysia and Vietnam are involved.
But in April 2012, tensions between the Philippines and China soared over Scarborough Shoal -- Huangyan island according to Beijing -- following a standoff between the Philippine Navy and several Chinese fishing boats that entered the area.
The unfortunate incident brought the state of bilateral relations between the two countries to their lowest point since they were established in 1972, and led to a mutual animosity that Manila and Beijing are still struggling to sweep under the rug.
Standoff at sea
On April 8, 8 Chinese fishing boats ventured into Scarborough Shoal and were spotted by a surveillance plane from the Philippine Navy, which immediately sent the BRP Gregorio del Pilar frigate to survey the area.
Two days later, the inspection team concluded that the boats were engaged in illegal fishing activities. As the team was about to arrest the fishermen, two Chinese surveillance ships dispatched to protect their countrymen showed up.
The Philippines accused of China of "bullying" by aggressively asserting its claim over Scarborough Shoal with the marine surveillance ships, while Beijing claimed that it was in fact Manila that struck the first blow by dispatching the frigate.
It wasn't only the governments that reacted to the row.
Less than 3 months after the standoff, another moment of tension occurred at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Foreign Ministers' Meeting in Cambodia.
ASEAN chair Cambodia, a staunch China ally, ignored the Philippines' plea to include the territorial disputes in the South China Sea in a joint statement and decided to not issue a joint communique at all for the first time in the regional bloc's 45-year history.
The Philippines issued a strong protest but has so far been unsuccessful in all its attempts to obtain a common position to deal with China from ASEAN.
Cambodia later hosted the regional bloc's summit in December, with pretty much the same outcome.
President Benigno Aquino III spoke up to Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen when the latter claimed that all member nations had agreed to take the issue off the table, and the heated discussion once again reflected the split within ASEAN.
The 4 Southeast Asian claimant countries to the South China Sea vowed to meet separately to adopt their own common position and discuss overlapping claims, but the meeting was postponed after typhoon Pablo devastated Mindanao in December.
After the row at the first ASEAN meeting, China felt it had scored a victory but the battle was still being fought.
With bilateral relations were at an all-time low, the rift between Beijing and Manila was showcased when Chinese President Hu Jintao first accepted and then refused to meet Aquino at the APEC Summit held in September in Vladivostok, Russia.
Observers said it was possible that Hu turned down Aquino's invitation after the President ordered the official use of the name “West Philippine Sea” to refer to maritime areas surrounding territories claimed by the Philippines, a move resented by Beijing and defended by Manila.
The snub -- initially denied by the Palace -- had a deep impact on the administration, and the President decided to nominate new DILG Secretary Mar Roxas to meet Chinese Vice President and leader-in-waiting Xi Jinping in China two weeks later.
Manila also wants China to agree to a binding Code of Conduct to resolve all disputes and is willing to invoke the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea to validate its claim over its 200-nautical-mile Exclusive Economic Zone that includes Scarborough Shoal.
Trillanes and the Brady notes
Right before Roxas and Xi met in Nanning, a bombshell exploded in Manila.
Sen Antonio Trillanes confirmed that he had been acting as "backchannel negotiator" with China for months, keeping Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario out of the loop.
His efforts, finally acknowledged by Malacañang, were exposed in full detail by Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile, who was accused by Trillanes of being a stooge of former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo -- seen as an ally by Beijing -- and published notes written during the meetings by Philippine Ambassador to China Sonia Brady, then recovering from a heart attack.
After the smoke cleared, Del Rosario emerged with a stronger position in the Cabinet and with Aquino's blessing to handle the issue as he and his staff at the DFA saw fit.
It was the last straw though for Brady, who decided not to return to Beijing and was eventually replaced in December by DFA Undersecretary for Policy Erlinda Basilio.
Basilio claims to have a personal stake in resolving the Scarborough Shoal dispute as her family hails from Masinloc, Zambales, the municipality which gave name to Bajo de Masinloc, the original name of the outcrop under Spanish colonial rule.
Passport war, Sansha administration
Philippine-Chinese bilateral relations ran into yet another obstacle at the end of November, when China unveiled its new passports including the controversial 9-Dash line rejected by other claimant countries.
The 9-Dash or U-Shaped line is used by China and Taiwan to claim a vast area of the South China Sea including the Paracel Islands -- occupied by China but claimed by Vietnam -- and the Spratly Islands, also disputed by Brunei, the Philippines, Malaysia and Vietnam apart from Taiwan.
Manila protested the inclusion of the map in the travel document and later decided to refuse to stamp it.
Following Vietnam's lead, the government ordered the Bureau of Immigration to require Chinese travelers carrying the new passport to get their visa stamped on a separate application document to assert that Manila does not recognize the map.
The passport war coincided with Beijing's latest move to assert its dominance in the South China Sea by empowering its authorities to board, check and inspect boats considered to be "intruding" in its waters.
In late June, China put all its territories in the area under the jurisdiction of Sansha, a new city belonging to Hainan province in charge of enforcing Beijing's policy over the region.
Chinese authorities are planning to revamp development on the island, establishing a military garrison, an airport and other infrastructure to make it clear to other countries that China is there to stay.
Why Scarborough is important
Apart from obvious nationalistic reasons, the Philippines is fighting to assert its sovereignty over Scarborough Shoal to defend its claim over what lies not on but beneath and around the outcrop.
The South China Sea, one of the world's busiest shipping lanes, is also believed to hold vast mineral resources, as well as oil and gas deposits.
The Philippines needs those natural resources to fuel its economy and wants to extract them either on its own or via joint exploration projects like on the Benham Rise on the other side of Luzon.
Businessman Manny V. Pangilinan has been discussing options with Chinese companies such as the state-owned oil giant CNOOC to develop potentially lucrative gas fields in Recto Bank, and more gas and oil could be found someday off Scarborough Shoal.
However, massive offshore development in the South China Sea would threaten a unique marine ecosystem already severely damaged after decades of overfishing.
China has its priorities clear and wants to go for the oil, while the Philippines would rather resolve the territorial dispute first and then decide what to do with the area.
Beijing has another interest in demonstrating its naval power in a region where the United States is struggling to regain a foothold after neglecting it following the Vietnam War, when the Philippines was Washington's top ally in Asia. - Rappler.com
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