South China Sea

U.S. warns China of ‘severe consequences’ if it reclaims Scarborough Shoal

Sofia Tomacruz

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U.S. warns China of ‘severe consequences’ if it reclaims Scarborough Shoal

SCARBOROUGH SHOAL. A screenshot of a video taken by the Philippine Coast Guard on August 5, 2016, shows a Chinese Coast Guard ship guarding the mouth of the shoal.

Screenshot from the Philippine Coast Guard

US East Asia and Pacific Affairs Assistant Secretary David Stillwell says any attempt by Beijing to do so would be a 'dangerous move'

A day after the United States branded China’s expansive maritime claims across most of the South China Sea as “completely unlawful,” it renewed a warning that any action on Beijing’s part to physically occupy or reclaim Scarborough Shoal (Panatag Shoal) will be met with “lasting and severe consequences.”

US East Asia and Pacific Affairs Assistant Secretary David Stillwell said this on Tuesday night, July 14 (Manila time), as he stressed that China “cannot lawfully assert maritime claims (against) the Philippines in areas that the tribunal found to be in the Philippines’ EEZ (exclusive economic zone) or in its continental shelf.” 

Stillwell also repeated US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s remarks that Manila and Washington’s Mutual Defense Treaty covered the South China Sea, citing any armed attack on Philippine forces or public vessels in the area will trigger mutual defense obligations. 

“Any move by the PRC [Peoples’ Republic of China] to physically occupy, reclaim, or militarize Scarborough Shoal would be a dangerous move on the part of the PRC and will have lasting and severe consequences for the PRC’s relationship with the Unites States as well as the entire region,” Stillwell said at the Center of Strategic and International Studies’ 10th South China Sea forum on Tuesday. 

“We have made very clear our opposition to any PRC harassment of the Philippines or any other nation in the South China Sea. And in Scarborough specifically, we have made equally clear our opposition to any PRC efforts to block access to Filipino fishermen and any move by Beijing to physically occupy, conduct reclamation at, or militarize Scarborough,” he added. 

Why this matters: Scarborough Shoal – Panatag Shoal or Bajo de Masinloc in the Philippines – is a vital spawning ground for fish that lies approximately approximately 120 nautical miles from the coast of Masinloc, Zambales. 

It’s been a flashpoint for tensions in the South China Sea for years and was the site of a tense standoff between the Philippines and China in 2012. The weeks-long standoff and China’s determination to take Scarborough Shoal was what had prompted the Philippines to files its historic arbitration case against China. 

Retired Philippine Supreme Court senior associate justice Antonio Carpio earlier warned China would reclaim the maritime feature as it is a crucial component of their plan to declare an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) in the South China Sea. 

Maritime law expert Jay Batongbacal likewise earlier described Beijing’s reclamation of the shoal as the “endgame” in China’s efforts to establish control over the South China Sea. 

This is because the shoal is one point in what some view as “strategic triangle” in the South China Sea edged by the Spratlys and Paracel islands where China already has military outposts. 

The state of play: The Hague ruling won by the Philippines declared the shoal an international fishing ground, though China has wrested de facto control of it since 2012, restricting Filipinos’ access. 

The Philippines, by law, considers it part of its national territory, as China claims spurious “historical rights” to it. –

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Sofia Tomacruz

Sofia Tomacruz covers defense and foreign affairs. Follow her on Twitter via @sofiatomacruz.