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Who really is to blame?

In June, China’s powerful Central Military Commission approved the formal establishment of Sansha, a military garrison for the disputed South China Sea.

Manny Angeles

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Resource-rich seas are at the center of the maritime row.

Fingers have been pointed to various directions on who really is to blame in the ongoing territorial dispute in the West Philippine Sea (WPS).

Is it the present administration, which has allegedly been soft on its stand against Chinese aggression, or the immediate past government which withdrew from a standoff at a shoal the country used to administer?

Others point at an accusing finger at Beijing for throwing its weight around like a bully to the chagrin of its smaller neighbors with similar claims around the region.

Various opinions have been expressed on how and when tensions really began that made the Philippines and China go eyeball to eyeball over seemingly inconsequential reefs and atolls in the disputed waters.

One could look back to the year 2012 at a serene cluster of rocks west of Luzon called Scarborough Shoal and known locally as Panatag (Bajo de Masinoc in Spanish). The Chinese call it Huangyan Island.

The shoal has been administered by the Philippines as part of its Zambales province until 8 April 2012 when China, using warships and fishing boats, initiated a standoff.

It happened during the administration of President Benigno Aquino III.

Philippine Navy surveillance planes spotted eight Chinese fishing boats in Scarborough Shoal and after identifying the fishing vessels, the country’s navy deployed BRP Gregorio Del Pilar — which was newly acquired from the United States — to the area.

China, meantime, sent surveillance ships to warn the Philippine Navy to leave the area, prompting a standoff.

 

Fishing ban

The following month, a fishing ban at Scarborough by the governments of China and the Philippines took effect.

In July of the same year, China blocked Philippine ships and fishing vessels from the lagoon of the disputed Panatag Shoal by setting up barriers to its entry point. Days later, Chinese frigate Dongguan ran aground on Hasa Hasa (Half Moon) Shoal, a contested maritime territory just 60 nautical miles from the Philippine island of Palawan.

In June, China’s powerful Central Military Commission approved the formal establishment of Sansha, a military garrison for the disputed South China Sea.

Then Philippine President Benigno Aquino III promulgated in September Administrative Order 29 which named maritime areas on the western side of the Philippine archipelago as the WPS.
This was also the month when then-Senator Antonio Trillanes IV emerged as a negotiator working independently for Aquino in Beijing.

After the three-month standoff between Philippine and Chinese vessels around Panatag Shoal, China informed the Philippines that Chinese coast guard vessels will remain permanently on the shoal by developing Sansha.

 

Arbitral case

Because it could not match China’s maritime power, the Aquino administration brought it up to the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) in The Hague, Netherlands, and in July 2016, won the case thru the nullification of Beijing’s excessive nine-dash line claims.

The Philippines’ historic victory at The Hague court reaffirms the country’s rights in its 200 nautical miles exclusive economic zone (EEZ) and invalidates China’s expansive claims.

President Duterte, in a speech at the United Nations General Assembly, asserted that the arbitral ruling stands in the wake of fresh Chinese aggressions in other reefs and islands in the WPS.

However, on 6 May, he dismissed The Hague ruling as nothing but a piece of paper that could be thrown in the trash bin.

His remarks came a day after the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) asserted anew the Philippines’ claim in the WPS at the 34th Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the United States dialogue.

His defeatist stance was highly criticized by local and international groups with Retired Supreme Court senior associate justice Antonio Carpio saying that his statement “will be a cause for a big celebration in Beijing.”

The question now remains, who really blinked at Scarborough where everything started?

 

Timeline

To fully grasp the unfolding of events that seem to have polarized the public, here’s a timeline of events leading to the ongoing tension on the WPS rocks:

1947 — China demarcated its claims on South China Sea territories with a “U-shaped line” made up of 11 dashes on a map which covered most of the disputed territories.

1953 — The Chinese Communist Party removed the Gulf of Tonkin portion which erased two of the dashes to make it the nine-dash line.

1994 — The 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) — under which the Philippines has taken China to arbitration — goes into effect after 60 countries ratified it. The agreement defines territorial waters, continental shelves and exclusive economic zones.

The Law of the Sea Convention defines the rights and responsibilities of nations with respect to their use of the world’s oceans, establishing guidelines for businesses, the environment, and the management of marine natural resources.

1995 — The Chinese government took control of the Mischief (Panganiban) Reef after constructing octagonal huts on stilts which Chinese officials said will serve as shelters for fishermen.
The Philippines lodged a protest through the ASEAN.

1997 — The Philippines’ naval ships prevented Chinese boats from approaching Scarborough Shoal which in turn led China to file a protest.

The uninhabited reef, known as Huangyan Island in China, is 230 kilometers (145 miles) off the Philippines and about 1,000 kilometers (600 miles) from China.

In ensuing years, the Philippines detained Chinese fishermen numerous times for alleged illegal fishing in the area.

2009 — The Chinese government submitted its nine-dash line map to the UN, saying that China has indisputable sovereignty over the islands in the South China Sea and the adjacent waters.

The submission came in response to applications by Vietnam and Malaysia for recognition of their extended continental shelves. The Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Indonesia protested the Chinese claim.

 

2011

February — Tensions in the disputed territories arose when Chinese frigate Dongguan fired three shots at Philippine fishing boats in the vicinity of Quirino or Jackson Atoll which was said to have been done following Chinese order for the fishing boats to leave.

March — After the incident in the Jackson Atoll, the Philippines bolstered its military presence along its western maritime border following an incident in which two Chinese boats threatened to ram a survey ship conducting seismic testing.

May — News reports indicated that Chinese military garrisons and outposts have been built in six reefs that are part of the Kalayaan Island Group.

July — The Chinese government lodged a protest after the Philippines extended an invitation of bids for the exploration of Area 3 and Area 4 in the Reed Bank. China stressed that the Philippines should refrain from any action that infringes on the mainland’s sovereignty.

October — A Philippine naval ship rams a small Chinese fishing boat in disputed waters near the Reed Bank and the government issued an apology to the Chinese embassy in Manila, stressing that it was an accident.

 

2012

April — Philippine Navy surveillance planes spotted eight Chinese fishing boats in Scarborough Shoal and after identifying the fishing vessels, the country’s navy deployed BRP Gregorio Del Pilar — which was newly acquired from the United States — to the area.

China, meantime, sent surveillance ships to warn the Philippine Navy to leave the area, prompting a standoff.

On 12 April, the country’s biggest warship was pulled out from the standoff with Chinese vessels but the impasse was not resolved and China sent a third ship to the disputed waters. Two days later, seven Chinese fishing vessels and one Marine survey ship left Panatag Shoal allegedly with an illegal harvest of endangered species

May — A fishing ban at the Scarborough (Panatag) Shoal by the governments of China and the Philippines took effect.

July — China blocks Philippine ships and fishing vessels from the lagoon of the disputed Panatag Shoal by setting up barriers to its entry point. Days later, Chinese frigate Dongguan runs aground on Hasa Hasa (Half Moon) Shoal, a contested maritime territory just 60 nautical miles from the Philippine island of Palawan.

June — China’s powerful Central Military Commission approved the formal establishment of Sansha, a military garrison in the disputed region.

September — Then Philippine President Benigno Aquino III promulgated Administrative Order 29 which named maritime areas on the western side of the Philippine archipelago as the WPS.
This was also the month when then Senator Antonio Trillanes IV emerged as a negotiator working independently for Aquino in Beijing.

November — After the three-month standoff between Philippine and Chinese vessels around Panatag Shoal, China informs the Philippines that its coast guard vessels will remain permanently on the shoal by developing Sansha.

The Philippine government also filed protests on China’s decision to print on its new e-passport the image of the controversial nine-dash line showing its claim over virtually the entire sea.

 

2013

January — The Philippine government filed an arbitration case against China at the United Nations-backed Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) to settle the maritime dispute. The Philippines invites China to join the proceedings.

February — The Chinese government rejected the Philippines’ move to bring the long-running territorial issues over the South China Sea before the PCA, saying Manila’s claim is “legally infirm and carried unacceptable allegations against Beijing.”

Then Philippine President Benigno Aquino III promulgated in September Administrative Order 29 which named maritime areas on the western side of the Philippine archipelago as the WPS.

May — Thirty Chinese fishing vessels, including three government ships, were spotted for more than a week at Ayungin Shoal, part of the Kalayaan Island Group off Palawan. The Philippines vowed to defend its territories as part of a standoff over a Chinese warship circling a reef, which is occupied by Filipino Marines.

June — The Chinese government released a new map of China, adding a 10th dash on the eastern side of Taiwan and claimed that the 10-dash lines are its “national boundaries,” without again explaining the legal basis or giving the fixed coordinates for the dashes.

July — Chinese vessels returned to Panatag Shoal a few days after they left the area off Zambales in the WPS.

November — The onslaught of super typhoon “Yolanda” had sent Chinese maritime and navy vessels lingering at the Ayungin Reef in Palawan home, while the half a dozen Filipino Marines on a grounded World War II-era ship are safe.

 

2014

January — The Chinese government had imposed a fishing permit rule in the WPS, defying the objections of the United States, Philippines and Vietnam. The Philippine government also filed a protest after the Chinese coast guard allegedly fired a water cannon at Filipino fishermen in the Philippines’ Bajo de Masinloc.

February — China offered a mutual withdrawal of ships from the disputed Panatag Shoal.

March — The country’s Department of National Defense confirmed that two Philippine ships were expelled by the Chinese coast guard from Ayungin Shoal in the Spratly Islands. The Philippines also disclosed that a Philippine vessel evaded two Chinese coast guard ships trying to block its path to deliver food, water and other troops to a military outpost on the shoal.

In line with this, the Philippine government had submitted a 4,000-page pleading or memorial to the PCA in The Hague in its case against China. The tribunal requests China to submit a counter-memorial, but China rejected this request.

April — The Philippine government signed the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) with the United States which allows for “rotational presence” of US military forces and equipment to be stationed at military bases in the Philippines for a period of 10 years.

May — The Philippine government filed charges against 11 Chinese fishermen who were poaching at another disputed shoal and accused China of carrying out reclamation work ostensibly done to prepare for the construction of an airstrip on Johnson South Reef.

The country also released photos of China’s “destabilizing” moves in the WPS, showing suspected airstrip construction on the Mabini (Johnson) Reef.

June — The arbitral tribunal handling the maritime dispute between Manila and Beijing had ordered China to respond to the case filed by the Philippines not later than 15 December 2014.
The Philippine government also criticized China for publishing a new map that expands Beijing’s claim over the WPS by using a 10-dash line as demarcation.

August — The Philippine government called out the Chinese for conducting “sovereignty patrols” in the West Philippine Sea by deploying ships with the sole purpose of staking Beijing’s claim in the disputed waters.

October — China has completed a runway for military aircraft on a West Philippine Sea island also claimed by Vietnam, state-run media report, as it asserts its territorial claims in the area.

December — The United States State Department disclosed a report concluding that China’s nine-dash line claim does not follow the international law of the sea. But the Chinese government issued a position paper accusing the Philippines of violating and abusing international law. It then rejected involvement in the case.

 

2015

April — The Chinese government had reportedly started the reclamation and transformation of the Panganiban Reef into a forward naval station. According to the UNCLOS, artificial islands do not afford the occupying nation territorial waters.

July — The Hague’s PCA listened to the Philippines’ oral arguments on whether the tribunal has the right to hear its case against China and during the hearings, “all Chinese arguments on jurisdiction and admissibility were properly considered.”

September — China has completed a 3,125-meter runway on Fiery Cross Reef which is also claimed by the Philippines as Kagitingan Reef.

October — The PCA had rejected the Chinese government’s strongest argument against the Philippines that the tribunal has no right to hear the Philippines’ case over the WPS.

November — China stood its ground and reaffirmed that it will “not accept” a judicial arbitration on the WPS even as the tribunal conducted hearings on the merits of the Philippines’ case.

The tribunal gave the Philippines and China until 9 December 2015, “to review and submit corrections to the transcript of the hearing.”

 

2016

January — Reports surfaced that China has built a submarine harbor at Panganiban Reef located in the West Philippine Sea near Palawan and within this month, it has finished construction on a second 10,000-ton China Coast Guard (CCG) cutter destined for patrols in the South China Sea.

February — The Philippines slams China over reports that Beijing deployed missiles on an island in the disputed area.

March — The United States released a statement saying that it fears that China is planning to build an artificial island in the disputed Panatag Shoal.

This comes as the Philippines and the US agreed on five local bases – the Antonio Bautista Air Base in Palawan, Basa Air Base in Pampanga, Fort Magsaysay in Nueva Ecija, Lumbia Air Base in Cagayan de Oro, and Mactan-Benito Ebuen Air Base in Cebu — where US troops will be allowed to build facilities.

April — The US launched joint South China Sea naval patrols with the Philippines as it continued to escalate its presence while accusing Beijing of “militarizing” the region.

May — China’s navy launches annual war drills in the South China Sea with one of its most advanced warships which include simulations for breaking an enemy blockade and reconnaissance drills with submarine forces.

The Chinese government also revealed that it is planning to build a base station in the Spratly Islands to aid fishing boats in trouble and shorten the distance they need to travel.

June — Southeast Asian countries were one in saying that they have “serious concerns” over recent events in the disputed South China Sea in an unusually strongly worded communique issued by their foreign ministers in China.

The statement, however, is later retracted due to the alleged withdrawal of Laos and Cambodia.

The PCA also announced this month that it will issue its ruling on the Philippines’ case against China on 12 July. However, the Chinese government stressed that it will reject any ruling by an international tribunal in a contentious case brought by the Philippines over the West Philippine Sea.

July — The Philippines scored a victory at The Hague, as the PCA announced that the arbitral tribunal has ruled in favor of the Philippines in its historic case against China.

The PCA ruled that China has no legal basis for claiming much of the WPS and had aggravated the regional dispute with its land reclamation and construction of artificial islands that destroyed coral reefs and the natural condition of the disputed areas.

 

2020

November — Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, in his speech during the 37th ASEAN Summit and Related Summits, strongly asserted the Philippines’ historic victory of the Philippines over China’s claim to the West Philippine Sea.

Duterte said that the ruling “is now part of international law. And its significance cannot be diminished nor ignored by any country, however big and powerful” and described that the said ruling as an “authoritative interpretation” of the application of the UNCLOS.

He also hoped for the finalization of a South China Sea Code of Conduct, as he has done many times before. But in this speech, there was a hint of impatience, as he spoke of a “long wait” for the code.

 

2021

March — The Philippines lodged a diplomatic protest following a report that around 220 Chinese militia ships have been moored near a reef in the country’s EEZ in WPS.

The Department of National Defense also accused China of “incursion,” saying that the presence of Chinese militia boats in the reef is a “clear provocative action of militarizing the area.”

April — The Department of Foreign Affairs launched successive diplomatic protests against China after the National Task Force for the West Philippine Sea (NTF-WPS) found at least 240 Chinese ships were still lingering in the WPS despite repeated demands to withdraw from the area.

May — The Philippines has asserted anew its historic arbitral victory against China before the international community.

During the 34th ASEAN dialogue with the United States, the Philippine government underscored yet again the importance of the 2016 arbitral award on the WPS as the presence of foreign maritime militia vessels in the country’s maritime zones “not only infringes upon Philippine sovereignty, sovereign rights, and jurisdiction, but also threatens the security and stability in the region.”

The United States also renewed its commitment in supporting the Philippines and its Southeast Asian allies amid Beijing’s continuing incursions into the South China Sea.

The Philippines also rejected an annual summer fishing ban imposed by China in the disputed South China Sea and encouraged its boats to keep fishing in the country’s territorial waters.

 

 

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