Here on the tranquil island of Palawan, in the West Philippine Sea, the arrival of Chinese naval vessels is causing quite some anxiety among local residents. Last Friday, three ships from the Peoples Liberation Army Navy’s North China Sea fleet, the missile destroyer Qingdao and missile frigates Yantai and Yancheng, traveled through the Bashi Channel, an international sea route between Luzon and Taiwan, before entering the West Philippine Sea, not far from the disputed Scarborough Shoal.
Reports by China’s state-run Xinhua news agency stated the naval vessels had entered Chinese “territorial waters” for the purpose of “patrol and training missions”. China claims almost all of the West Philippine Sea, including parts close to the shores of the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan.
China’s military movements come on the heels of last month’s decision by the Philippine government to request a United Nations tribunal to arbitrate the disputed waters. The move follows Philippine protests over Chinese incursions into waters within its exclusive economic zone (EEZ) and the permanent stationing of three of China’s ships to Bajo de Masinloc, or Huangyan island as it is referred to in China. The Philippine government attempted to resolve the issue at last July’s Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) meeting in Phnom Pehn, but due to unprecedented infighting, members failed to reach a joint communique – the first time in the bloc’s 45-year history. Last month, the Chinese government provided the U.N. with detailed claims to waters in the East China Sea.
In its request to the U.N., the Philippines asked the United Nations to declare invalid China’s claim to parts of the sea that are within the Philippine EEZ. Manila also asked the U.N. to forbid Beijing’s incursions into Philippine territorial waters. Philippines’ Department of Foreign Affairs said it decided to take the dispute to the United Nations because the government had already exhausted all other options.
While the attempt to settle the maritime dispute by peaceful means is to be lauded, it remains unclear whether the latest action by Manila can proceed without China’s participation in the arbitration. China has shown its adamant refusal to bring territorial disputes with its neighbors to any international forum, including ASEAN, insisting on resolution only through bilateral negotiations.
During my conversations with Palawenos in the tourist town of El Nido, I found that while the latest provocative actions by Chinese naval vessels had alarmed the local residents, many were confident that support from their American allies would be forthcoming if needed. Indeed, a recent visit by a congressional delegation from the United States to Manila expressed support for the Philippines’ decision to go into arbitration in accordance with the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. With its recent pivot toward Asia and implied commitment to support its allies in the region, the Obama administration could soon find itself between a rock and a hard place should provocative actions continue to escalate.