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The standoff on Second Thomas Shoal

Publication Date : 28-03-2014


Almost to a man, most of the states on the rimlands of Asia-Pacific have closed ranks to denounce China’s “bullying” actions in the South China Sea and East China Sea.

In a 66-page survey of international opinion on the South China Sea issue, China came off as a rouge state that poses as a threat to peace in the region. The survey, released by the Department of Foreign Affairs, was conducted among leading media publications and think tanks, scholars and academics in Indonesia, United States, Thailand, Japan, Vietnam, Hong Kong and Australia.

The journals include the Bangkok Post and The Nation in Thailand; the Jakarta Post in Indonesia; Asia Times in Hong Kong; the Diplomat in Japan; The Atlantic Monthly, The Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, The Washington Times and Eurasia Review in the United States; The Sydney Morning Herald and The Australian newspaper in Australia.

Most of the articles were provocative, including one from The Australian titled, “If China bullies on the high seas, it may need to be taught a naval lesson.” The Diplomat ran an article titled, “China’s nine-dash line is dangerous.”  The Sydney Morning Herald ran an article titled, “China’s bullying tactics backfire.” The Nation had a piece titled “Price of passivity in Washington could be war in Asia.” The Atlantic wrote about “China, the Philippines, and the makings of a ‘Munich’ Movement.”

Of direct interest to the Philippines, one of the four Southeast Asian states with claims to parts of the South China Sea rivaling China’s, is an editorial of the Bangkok Post. (Thailand has no claims to the South China Sea.) The editorial, which came out March 18, said that the latest spat in the battle over South China Sea territory pits Beijing against Manila “in a remarkably specious dispute.” Briefly, the editorial recalled that the Philippines has placed several soldiers on a grounded Philippine naval vessel at Second Thomas Shoal, which is also claimed by China. It points out that Philippine civilian ships tried to carry food and supplies to the islet and that the Chinese coast guard blocked them.

“It’s a tiny event on a flyspeck shoal, but all the more important for the huge over-reaction,” commented the editorial. “No matter what all the countries involved say, the dispute-plagued China Sea, from Japan to Malaysia, is a complicated issue. Between two and six countries claim islands, shoals and seabeds in almost the entire arc. In some cases the disputes have caused deadly sea battles. The countries have shown both good and bad faith. All involved say the issue is simple. It is not.

“In this current case of Second Thomas Shoal, however, China should show better faith. The Philippines calls it Ayungin Shoal; China calls it Ren’ai Reef. By any name, the tiny piece of land is the property of a few Filipinos. China, at tremendous expense in equipment and personnel, encircles and attempts to harass the shoal’s inhabitants on a 24-hour basis. Now purely for that same unique purpose of vexation, it has imposed a blockade.

“A more diplomatic and acceptable answer from China should be to allow the resupply. If necessary, Beijing should even allow the small detachment on the shoal to construct shelters. This would not affect China’s claim to the territory. It would merely show a kinder, gentler side of Chinese territorial claim that far too often is loud, aggressive and unpleasant.

“The Philippines has also the right to expect diplomatic backing in this dispute from all its Asean neighbors. Asean need only state it favors allowing supplies to reach those at Second Thomas Shoal as needed. The group can continue its long-running diplomatic attempt to establish a lasting compromise to all the South China Sea disputes…”

Will this gesture of compromise from Asean appeal to China to give up its hardline policy of dealing with Asean bilaterally (under which approach Beijing can pick off rival claimants on a divide-and-rule strategy) rather than on a multilateral basis?

In an essay in Asia Times Online, Donald K. Emmerson, head of the Southeast Asia Forum in the Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center at Stanford University, said that “while much of the world was watching Russia swallow Crimea, few realized that an also dangerous tit-for-tat had begun to unfold in the South China Sea.”

He was referring to Second Thomas Shoal where “a handful of Philippine Marines have long been stationed and re-provisioned on the rusting deck of the BRP Sierra Madre, a Philippine naval ship half-sunk into the reef in 1999. Ever since the vessel and Marines have served to embody Manila’s claim of sover eignty over the shoal. More recently, China has tried to raise the salience of its own claim by intensively patrolling the area.”

Emmerson noted that “On March 9, 2014, China made a move to change the status quo at the shoal. For the first time in 15 years, Beijing stopped Manila from delivering supplies to the Sierra Madre. The Chinese Coast Guard forced the two Philippine ships to turn away. Manila answered the blockade by successfully dropping food and water to the Marines by air. It was then up to Manila whether to send in another supply ship or plane, and up to Beijing whether to leave it alone, chase it away, sink it, or shoot it down.

“China claims that the Philippine ships were ‘loaded with construction materials’ to build up Manila’s position. Manila says the ships were merely trying to re-provision the Marines ‘to improve the conditions there,’ not to build permanent structures on the shoal.” 


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