Good News and Bad News for China in the South China Sea

Now Duterte’s proposal to declare an executive order for a marine sanctuary at Scarborough Shoal could rekindle bad relations. The shoal is in the contested zone 198 km west of Luzon Island. In 2012 vessels from China and the Philippines got locked into a two-month standoff there, creating the hostility that ended with arbitration. The marine sanctuary would cover the shoal’s triangular lagoon of about 150 square kilometers, ostensibly to let fishing stocks regenerate. But in the meantime, the Philippines says, no more fishing. Officials in Manila call the executive order to be a peaceful move aimed purely at ensuring fish for everyone in the surrounding oceans where boats from both sides trawl for seafood.

This photo taken on June 16, 2016 shows a fisherman fixing a net next to the fishing fleet at the port in Masinloc in Zambales province.A recent incident at the nearby Scarborough Shoal, a necklace of reefs and rocks west of the main Philippine island of Luzon that Filipino fishermen say hosts some of the world’s most abundant marine life, is part of a long-running territorial row (TED ALJIBE/AFP/Getty Images)

“The proposal came from both sides, from the fishery authorities, because the inside of the shoal is actually a spawning area for many fishes in the South China Sea,” speculates Ramon Casiple, executive director of the Philippine advocacy group Institute for Political and Electoral Reform.

But Beijing’s government hasn’t aired a view on the sanctuary idea. It may be unhappy but doesn’t want to rip a new hole just yet in its relations with the Philippines. The problem may be Manila’s assertion of one-sided control. The executive order would imply Philippine sovereignty over the shoal, including making the call  on who can fish there plus enforcing that order. China claims the land form, as well, though it’s within the Philippine exclusive economic zone. An adviser to Duterte said the government might send civilian coast guard personnel to the shoal and that he hoped China would accept his government’s conservation plan.

Elsewhere in the South China Sea, in 2007 Taiwan established a marine national park. China itself has ordered everyone stay away from an ecologically rare sinkhole in the Paracel chain contested by Vietnam.China itself has ordered everyone stay away from an ecologically rare sinkhole in the Paracel chain contested by Vietnam.

“For an action like designating the Scarborough Shoal as a marine sanctuary to have a deescalating effect on South China Sea tensions, it would need to have at least tacit approval from relevant claimants,” says Jonathan Spangler, director of the South China Sea Think Tank in Taipei. “Otherwise, it risks leading to escalation, regardless of whether Manila’s intentions are related to environmental conservation or not.”


Philippines Says Will Not Help US on Patrols in South China Sea

The Philippine defense secretary said Thursday it is highly unlikely his country will allow the U.S. military to use it as a springboard for freedom of navigation patrols in the disputed South China Sea to avoid antagonizing China.

Delfin Lorenzana said U.S. ships and aircraft could use bases in Guam, Okinawa or fly from aircraft carriers to patrol the disputed waters.

Under President Rodrigo Duterte’s predecessor, Benigno Aquino III, some U.S. aircraft and ships stopped in the Philippines on the way to patrolling the disputed waters to challenge China’s territorial claims.

Duterte, who took office in June, has taken steps to mend ties with China and became hostile toward the Obama administration after it raised concerns over Duterte’s deadly crackdown on illegal drugs.

Asked if the Philippines will continue to host U.S. ships and aircraft patrolling the disputed waters, Lorenzana said Duterte will not likely allow that to happen “to avoid any provocative actions that can escalate tensions in the South China Sea. It’s unlikely.”

“We’ll avoid that for the meantime,” Lorenzana said. “Anyway, the U.S. can fly over there coming from other bases.”

In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Elizabeth Trudeau said Thursday she could not comment on Lorenzana’s remarks as she hadn’t seen them, but added: “Our adherence to freedom of navigation is well known. You know, we will fly, we will sail anywhere within international waters and we will continue that.”

The commander of U.S. forces in the Pacific, Adm. Harry Harris, said last month that despite Duterte’s rhetoric, military cooperation with Manila has not changed.

Duterte has publicly threatened to scale back the Philippines’ military engagements with the U.S., including scuttling a plan to carry out joint patrols with the U.S. Navy in the disputed waters, which he said China opposes.

U.S.-Philippine annual combat exercises have been reduced and will be redesigned to focus on disaster response and humanitarian missions. Among the maneuvers to be dropped starting next year are amphibious landing exercises and beach raids aimed at enhancing the country’s territorial defense, military officials said.

Duterte’s actions have become a hindrance to U.S. efforts to reassert its presence in Asia, although the U.S. military has vowed to continue patrolling one of the world’s busiest commercial waterways.

After Duterte met Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing in October, China allowed Filipinos to fish at disputed Scarborough Shoal. China took control of the rich fishing area in 2012 after a tense standoff with Philippine government ships.

Philippine coast guard ships have also resumed patrols at the shoal.

Aside from the easing of tensions at Scarborough, Chinese coast guard ships are no longer blocking Philippine resupply ships from Second Thomas Shoal, farther south in the Spratlys, Lorenzana said.

Lorenzana said he and his Chinese counterpart agreed in October, during Duterte’s trip to China, to resume exchanges of defense observers and students under a 2004 agreement. The exchanges were suspended in 2012 when the Philippines brought its territorial disputes with China to international arbitration under Aquino’s presidency, angering Beijing, he said.

China has also inquired if it can supply armaments to the Philippines, he said.

China can further expand its influence in the region if U.S. President-elect Donald Trump pursues an isolationist foreign policy, former Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario said.

“If the U.S. relinquishes (its) leadership posture in terms of the region, that vacuum will be quickly filled by our northern neighbor,” del Rosario said.


Associated Press writer Matthew Pennington in Washington contributed to this report.


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