China-Philippines sea row: Scarborough Shoal standoff, what’s at stake?

(The original version of this article is first published on already defunct Yahoo! Voices on May 21, 2012, titled, China-Philippines Scarborough Shoal dispute: Will there be another Falklands war in Asia?)

If the ongoing China-Philippines sea row is solely based on security and threat, political, economic and strategic military advancement, and territorial expansion rather than on peace and security commitment to mutual treaties and international laws, and plain respect, a countdown to another Falklands war in Asia-Pacific will be ticking.

Territorial disputes have become such an old trick of imperialism since the time of greed unknown to man. Histories of the worlds never tell a lie. War of aggression always demands a price. The costs of waging war are expensive—too expensive for the Philippines to buy for it.

On the verge of China territorial dispute with the Philippines, both are staunch in claiming the “piece of rock.” Now, what is at stake?

There must only be three issues underlying the standoff:

1. China’s interest
2. the United States’ interest
3. the Philippines’ sovereignty

Why in all disputes either on the territory, arm or military or, even on racism the United States has its unique or strategic presence? History provokes that it is because of her interest to remain the sole superpower over terrestrial, fluvial, and aerial domains on earth to exercise full control.

US interventions in the Gulf war, in Arab worlds, in Europe, and Latin countries, and of course in the Philippines—the only either a satrapy of the US or a puppet for the imperialist in Asia’s empire, I guess—are the least humble indications of the US imperialism.

Meanwhile, however,  the US seemingly humble character when commenting on the ongoing China-Philippine sea row has brought either good or bad, yet advantageous to her interest. If this is so, then still the US is the benefactor of China-Philippines sea row backwash.

China-Philippines sea row: Will there be another Falklands war in Asia?
China-Philippines sea row: Contested waters in the South China Sea (West Philippine Sea) (Image file Credit: AFP)

On China’s claim over Scarborough Shoal

Scarborough Shoal (as called Huangyan Island in China), a triangular-shaped atoll with a circumference of 46 km, has been regarded as part of the Zhongsha Islands in China since 1935. China has been constantly emphasizing, asserting this fact when Scarborough Shoal became the subject of dispute among the claiming parties. Hence, China claimed Scarborough Shoal and most islands in the South China Sea based on historical ownership.

The Philippines’ claim over Scarborough Shoal

Scarborough Shoal (as called Bajo de Masinloc in the Philippines) is located 124 nautical miles west of Zambales, and the government of the Philippines claimed it as a part of the Municipality of Masinloc, Zambales province.

Furthermore, the Philippines claims Scarborough Shoal based on Philippine sovereignty under public international law and Philippine sovereign rights under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos).[1]

China-Philippines sea row: The aerial view of Scarborough Shoal
The aerial view of Scarborough Shoal (Image file Credit:

Backgrounds of both claims

Scarborough Shoal was named after the capsized tea-trade ship, Scarborough. The China-Philippines sea row has first started on April 30, 1997, when the Filipino naval ships prevented the Chinese boats from approaching the shoal. This historic event prompted China to express their strong protest against the Philippines’ attempt.[2]

Meanwhile, the latest China-Philippines dispute on the same subject erupted on April 10, 2012.

China has been adamant in claiming over Scarborough Shoal even as early as 1935. China listed the Scarborough Shoal as part of the Zhongsha Islands.

In 1956, China again protested against the Philippines’ claim of sovereignty over some of the islands in the South China Sea for a geographical basis. Ergo, the Philippines has made their claims over islands in the South China Sea based on territorial proximity around the Philippine archipelago.

Considering China’s reaction for the sake of argument after the Philippine government claimed sovereignty over those contested islands in 1956 claim, it could be possible that this has triggered China to promulgate its 1958 Declaration on the Territorial Sea that recognized the breadth of the territorial sea of China. This declaration covered the Zongsha islands, where Scarborough Shoal was a part of these islands.

Moreover, the 1992 Law on the Territorial Sea and the Contiguous Zone reaffirmed the sovereignty of China over the Zongsha Islands.[3]

On the other hand, the Philippines has become too confident, so to speak, in claiming over Scarborough Shoal primarily based on Unclos provisions and the Philippine constitution.

China, Philippines at Unclos

Unclos codifies comprehensive governance of law and order in oceans and seas in the entire globe. Its salient tasks enforce coastal and archipelagic states to exercise sovereignty over their territorial sea, establish exclusive economic zones (EEZs), subject parties to the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea in cases of disputes, and among others.

The Philippines signed Unclos on December 10, 1982, and ratified it on May 8, 1984, with reservations.

China ratified Unclos on June 7, 1996, also with reservations on territorial sovereignty, and made clear its opposition to Section 2 of Part XV of Unclos concerning respect to all categories of disputes.


China asserts sovereignty over Scarborough Shoal based on its historical claim. Its control over this shoal is evident in China’s issued proclamations and constant assertions.

On the contrary, the Philippines has no basis to claim the Scarborough Shoal on the principle of acquiring a territory that no one has been claiming for (terra nullius), if and only if the Philippines asserts its claim based on public international law relating modalities of acquisition.

As far as independence is concerned, the Philippines gained its independence from the US in 1946. China has issued and asserted a declaration claiming over Zongsha islands, where Scarborough Shoal is a part, as early as 1935 and in 1947—Scarborough Shoal was given a name to Minzhu Jiao.

Ergo, the Philippines cannot just suffice its claim based on the principle of terra nullius. It can also be deduced that the Philippines failed to consider the historical basis and pertinent historical documents on the territorial claim when drawing out the territorial border.

Furthermore, the 1978 map published by the Philippine National Mapping and Resource Information Authority does not include Scarborough Shoal as part of the Philippine territorial sea.

Moreover, the Philippines has already expressed its claim over the islands in the South China Sea and that was limited only to the Kalayaan islands based on Presidential Decree No. 1596.[4] Ergo, Philippine’s claim over Scarborough Shoal is virtually inconsistent unless otherwise PD No. 1596 was superseded.

While the Philippines has been willing to submit the dispute to the international tribunal, as far as provisions in Unclos is concerned, China, on the contrary, closed its door for any international interventions.

This China’s response should not be undermined, misinterpreted, or even misunderstood. For it only shows that China is firm and impossible to give up Scarborough Shoal and is very clear on this issue living by its historic claim. The Philippines should think twice in pursuing any moves beyond diplomacy.

But up to what extent can diplomacy go? Or what will happen if all diplomatic options fail? Will history repeat itself? Which of these, the Falklands war or the Mischief Reef settled case?

Meanwhile, circumventing the whole China-Philippines sea row issue based on historical perspective and the present international treaty, especially Unclos, this territorial scuffle is unwise, unfitting, and incompetent to resolve it through Unclos provisions because of the following issues that cannot be set aside:

1. While Unclos has provided the sovereign state a basis for a claim to a 200 nautical miles EEZ to an island, the disputed Scarborough Shoal is categorically not an island.
2. China’s interest to expand over Asia and the Pacific cannot be set aside; in the same way, the US would never settle to just sit and watch the game of China with the Philippines as the latter being her “little sister.”
3. Both the Philippines and China signified their reservations[5] upon its ratification of Unclos.

The signatories-disputing parties have expressed reservations upon subscribing to Unclos. Then, what makes sense in bringing up the issue to the international tribunal and resolving it based on Unclos when both the disputing parties-signatories have conditions hostile to the very Unclos provisions?

Neither bilateral diplomacy nor waging war against each other is the best option to generate a win-win solution at this moment. But the right timing to diplomatic options would be the last resort.

The Philippines should come to know that despite the US allegiance to the Mutual Defense Treaty and her promises, still, the US would position itself toward achieving her interest at whatever cost.

It may also be contentious that proximity claim must not supersede historical claim. However, painful it is, history teaches us good values such as respect.

When China’s claim over Scarborough Shoal has been recognized so long before the birth of Unclos and other international laws and independence of the other claiming sovereign states like the Philippines, then why the latter, still so persistent of a claim when in fact both have expressed reservations?

In one way, doubts cast a black hole over this China-Philippines sea row pointing out back to the role of the US in the present arena of territorial conflict in the Asian empire.

Although the US has not yet ratified Unclos, her role in either diplomacy or military support to the Philippines poses malignant symptoms to China’s common sense yet dubious in some ways.

When the US cast a favorable side to the historical basis of Great Britain over the proximity claim of Argentina to the Falkland Islands, the 1982 Falklands war broke out. But seeing China is expanding in some ways or another in the Asia-Pacific region, can the US afford to do nothing with the Scarborough Shoal dispute? The Philippines then will be torn between two boulders.

The best option left for this China-Philippines sea row is the right timing for any diplomatic moves. Not today, while the iron is still hot. Not also tomorrow when pride and sovereignty will be at stake. But as of this moment, the Philippines may show respect and listen to the giant’s historical claim drama. It isn’t a form of being bullied; neither is it a body language of cowardice nor is it a symptom of being on a losing end in the battle that we have never been. Only fools rush in. ▲▼


[1] Zou, Keyuan. Law of the Sea in East Asia: Issues and Prospects. Routledge: 2005.
[2] Philippine Position on Scarborough Shoal and the Waters Within Its Vicinity. Philippine Official Gazette , April 18, 2012.
[3] 1992 Law of the People’s Republic of China on Territorial Sea and the Contiguous Zone by
[4] Presidential Decree No. 1596 by
[5] Declarations and Statements by

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