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Is China Laying Down Stakes at Disputed Scarborough Shoal?

Sep. 6, 2013 - 05:52PM   |  
By WENDELL MINNICK   |   Comments
Building Blocks? The Philippines is claiming that China is dropping concrete blocks in the Scarborough Shoal in a move to construct a facility there.
Building Blocks? The Philippines is claiming that China is dropping concrete blocks in the Scarborough Shoal in a move to construct a facility there. (Philippines Department of National Defense)
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TAIPEI — Manila has expressed concern over the discovery of 75 square concrete blocks found near the entrance of the Scarborough Shoal, which is within the Philippines exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in the South China Sea but China has claimed as sovereign territory.

Manila is accusing China of laying the foundation for a permanent facility in violation of international maritime law and ignoring Manila’s call for international arbitration for a peaceful resolution.

“The Philippine government maintains its policy of putting the issue before international arbitration to peacefully settle its difference with China on the South China Sea, particularly on China’s alleged intention to build a structure in the Scarborough Shoal,” said Rommel Banlaoi, executive director of the Philippine Institute for Peace, Violence and Terrorism Research. However, China is “committed to strengthen its control of the Scarborough, particularly in the light of American [military] plan to increase its rotational presence in the Philippines.”

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei denied the charges, yet reiterated China’s claim to the shoal as “China’s inherent territory.” China refers to Scarborough as Huangyan.

The fracas began in April 2012 when Chinese maritime patrol vessels sailed into the area to prevent the Philippine Navy from arresting Chinese fishermen poaching protected species. In July, Chinese vessels erected a barrier to the shoal’s entrance and permanently stationed maritime patrol vessels to prevent Philippine fishermen from entering the area.

Now the Philippines believes it has evidence that China is constructing a facility on the shoal similar to Mischief Reef in 1994, “which morphed from structures for fishermen seeking protection from inclement weather to fortified structures that serve a military purpose,” said Carl Thayer, a regional maritime specialist at the Australian Defence Force Academy. Mischief Reef is 210 kilometers from Palawan, well within the Philippines’ EEZ.

Normally, an EEZ is 370 kilometers from a country’s coastal baseline, except when EEZs overlap. Mainland China is 870 kilometers from the shoal.

“Worth noting that Scarborough Shoal is, unlike the Spratlys, unambiguously within Philippines EEZ,” said Euan Graham, senior fellow in the Maritime Security Program at Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies. “That doesn’t invalidate China’s sovereignty claim, but it does strengthen the Philippines’ hand legally if China were to start constructing fortifications, or interfering with Philippine vessels.”

On Sept. 2, a Philippine aircraft photographed the area where the concrete blocks — two cubic feet in size — were discovered 10 nautical miles northwest of the shoal’s entrance. In addition, two vertical posts were also found just north of the entrance, along with three Chinese Coast Guard vessels “on station” in the immediate area.

Despite Manila’s complaints, the government’s hands might be tied.

China’s construction activities come on the eve of the sixth China-ASEAN Senior Officials Meeting and the ninth Joint Working Group Meeting on Implementation of the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC) in China from Sept. 14-15.

Thayer believes that “China has timed its construction activities in tandem with these meetings.” Should Manila protest too loudly, China could call off talks and blame Manila for violating the spirit of the DOC, he said.

“Or the Philippines may be intimidated from raising its protest too loudly for fear of offending fellow ASEAN [Association of Southeast Asian Nations] members who have invested in the forthcoming round of meetings,” Thayer said. “China is playing wedge politics. No matter how this plays out China gains because bit by bit it is exerting control over Scarborough Shoal.”

However, it is still unclear if the concrete blocks will be used to tether fishing boats or be used as the foundation of a facility, Thayer said.

“First of all, I think we should not jump to conclusions,” said Ian Storey, a maritime specialist at Singapore’s Institute of Southeast Asian Studies. Despite claims by Manila, “this is not the typical pattern of Chinese construction,” which normally begins with “wooden structures on stilts; then octagonal wooden structures, and then a concrete fortification.”

The photographs provided by Manila show what appears to be a “random pattern of concrete blocks scattered around the reef,” and it is “not immediately obvious that these blocks can or will be used as the foundations for a Chinese structure.”

One school of thought is that the blocks were dropped by Chinese fishermen and used to tie up their boats.

“We have been here before,” Storey said. In 2011, the Philippines claimed that Chinese ships had unloaded construction materials at Amy Douglas Reef, but “never provided photographic or material evidence to support that allegation.” Storey said it was “incumbent” on Manila to provide more convincing evidence.

Thayer said the only plan on the horizon is the Joint Vision Statement issued by the Philippines and the United States on Aug. 22.

“The joint statement includes a provision for creating a joint force posture ‘that assures freedom of navigation and provides for common defense of each nation’s sovereign territory.’

“Unfortunately for Manila, China’s actions were taken before the joint force posture was created,” he said. “In any event, it is unlikely that the US would countenance the use of force against Chinese facilities.”

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