Scarborough Shoal: A Chinese Noose around the Philippines' Neck

Chinese destroyer Qingdao conducts an evasive maneuver. Flickr/Creative Commons/Simon Yang

The new status quo between Beijing and Manila is hardly sustainable.

The past few weeks have seen a kind of whirlwind for the Rodrigo Duterte administration. “Rody,” as the Philippine president is affectionately called, made a historic trip to Beijing, where he met President Xi Jinping and returned with multiple billion dollars’ worth of Chinese investments. One of the things he promised to disaffected fishermen was to seek the restoration of their access to the Scarborough Shoal: the issue at the heart of a Chinese-Philippine conflict that has simmered for years—from April 2012, when the fishermen’s incident took place, to Manila’s filing of a legal suit against Beijing in the Permanent Court of Arbitration—characterized by recurring tensions in the waters around the disputed shoal.

Duterte returned from that trip with the official claim that he had asserted Philippine rights over the shoal, but he left it at that. “I leave it to the Chinese authorities what they will do in the next few days. We talked about it but I leave it to them,” he said. But true enough, how subsequent developments turned out seem to speak of the effectiveness of his talks with Xi. Reports started to emerge from local Philippine fishermen that they were able to fish around the shoal without harassment from the China Coast Guard (CCG) for the first time since April 2012. The loads of marine products harvested from the shoal, including more exotic species such as marlin and yellowfin tuna, arriving at Philippine piers aboard the boats, not to mention the jubilant smiles on the faces of the fishermen, are undeniable.

Adding to this euphoria have been reports of camaraderie between Philippine fishermen and CCG personnel, sharing foodstuffs and catches. Apparently, the Chinese are not such hard-headed, indifferent souls as to be oblivious to the plight of poor fishermen, merely trying to eke out a decent livelihood.

Diplomacy seems to have worked. But only partially.

Then came reports about the CCG still blocking access into the shoal, based on the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative’s new satellite-imagery release. One local report even spoke of fishermen having “run the blockade” of the CCG. As Jay Batongbacal has pointed out, the imagery is “only a snapshot of a specific point in time.” The fishermen could have been waiting outside the shoal waiting for proper sea conditions to enter.

But one perhaps needs to put things in perspective. Some Philippine fishermen may simply want to take the risk to run headlong into the blockade, or exploit gaps in CCG coverage of the shoal. As Batongbacal has pointed out, “Philippine traditional wooden bancas that are smaller and lighter could conceivably enter the shoal at any point along the perimeter under the right tidal and sea conditions, as long as they can find an appropriate opening in the reef structure.” Local fishermen who are familiar with the tidal conditions and gaps in the shoal structure could possibly enter without being intercepted. The CCG might be still holding the shoal, but its personnel cannot be omnipresent all around the feature. The only way to keep out the fishermen would be to erect a barrier around the shoal.

Amid all these conflicting reports, one fact is unambiguous: the Chinese have maintained effective control over the shoal, a severe burden Manila has borne since Mischief Reef in the 1990s.

From April 2012 on, Beijing has tirelessly consolidated its physical control over Scarborough Shoal. Over the years since, the CCG has progressively built up its physical capacity to project force in order to exert Chinese sovereignty and rights in the South China Sea. It would have been inconceivable to do so in the 1990s, when the Philippine maritime forces could, notwithstanding their limited offshore capabilities allowing them only intermittent control at best, apprehend Chinese fishermen found operating in the shoal.

But times have changed. The CCG has returned to the spotlight since April 2012. The preceding Benigno Aquino administration and its policies, including the lawsuit, only hardened Beijing’s resolve. No longer would the CCG allow anyone else to conduct law enforcement around the shoal. And with more and more new offshore patrol vessels in various stages of construction and entering service—like “throwing dumplings into the pot” (下饺子), as the Chinese fondly and proudly proclaimed—the CCG has no qualms exerting undisputed control over the shoal.