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A Single Spark Can Start a Prairie Fire

A Single Spark Can Start a Prairie Fire

In the latest spark added to the ongoing fire over territorial waters in the South China Sea, a diplomatic protest was handed to Beijing’s charge d’affairs in Manila on Tuesday. The move follows the alleged firing of a water cannon by a Chinese government vessel on January 27 to drive away two Filipino fishing boats in the Scarborough Shoal, a rich fishing ground in the South China Sea. The shoal is claimed by both governments and also referred to as the Bajo de Masinloc by Filipinos. The shoal and seven other reefs came under Chinese control in 2012, following a tense confrontation between Chinese and Philippine ships. The Philippine government eventually backed off and attempted to arbitrate the dispute through Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and then again through a United Nations tribunal. The disputed waters are now guarded by three Chinese coast guard and surveillance ships, and last year the Philippine Defense department discovered 75 concrete blocks, a possible prelude to construction, at Scarborough Shoal – allegedly laid there by the Chinese.

China claims the disputed waters as “traditional fishing grounds”, yet fisherman from around the region were also active there for centuries.  The shoal is referenced in official Chinese documents and also appears in 13th-century Chinese maps.  China’s first formal claim to the shoal was made in 1935, while Manila says its first claim was in 1937–38, although it was unable to publicize its claim due to Japanese incursions and invasion.  The shoal did not feature on Philippine maps until 1997, when Manila began to press its claim by taking ownership of the shoal as terra nullius, or “no mans land.”
While the latest action by the Chinese to assert control over the disputed waters uses primitive means, the Philippine government has chosen the moral high ground by invoking the rule of law, specifically by seeking arbitration through the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). China ratified the UNCLOS in 1996, yet ten years later Beijing said it would not accept procedures referring to “binding decisions” and compulsory processes under the law, considering certain UNCLOS rules to be inconsistent with its national policy. Somewhat confusingly, it has similarly chosen to invoke UNCLOS law to seek a binding decision for its claim against Japan on the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. China is also party to the Declaration on the Conduct for Parties in the South China Sea, which it signed in 2002, yet China blatantly ignores Article 5 of that treaty, which calls for “self-restraint in the conduct of activities that would complicate or escalate disputes in uninhabited islands and reefs”.

The latest skirmish may not appear to be significant when compared to more dangerous skirmishes happening between Japan, China and the U.S. in recent months, but the threat of escalation exists in any situation. As Mao Zedong is credited with saying, “a single spark can start a prairie fire”. Fortunately, the Philippine government has chosen restraint in this latest case, as well as nine other instances of harassment last year committed by Chinese government vessels on Filipino fishermen — including when Filipinos were prevented from taking shelter at the shoal during stormy weather.

In this latest bout between the heavyweight challenger Chinese military and the bantamweight Philippine military, the Philippine government has shown appropriate restraint during a fight in which the Chinese government appears to have its own interpretation of some of the rules of the match. The Philippine government has taken a few punches below the belt, but the fight cannot be allowed to continue in this fashion.  It is high time for an international referee to step in, separate the fighters and enforce the rules of engagement.



Gary Sands

Gary Sands is a Senior Analyst at Wikistrat, a crowdsourced consultancy, and a Director at Highway West Capital Advisors, a venture capital, project finance and political risk advisory. He has contributed a number of op-eds for Forbes, U.S. News and World Report, Newsweek, Washington Times, The Diplomat, The National Interest, International Policy Digest, Asia Times, EurasiaNet, Eurasia Review, Indo-Pacific Review, the South China Morning Post, and the Global Times. He was previously employed in lending and advisory roles at Shell Capital, ABB Structured Finance, and the U.S. Overseas Private Investment Corporation. He earned his Masters of Business Administration in International Business from the George Washington University in Washington, D.C. and a Bachelor of Science in Finance at the University of Connecticut in Storrs, Connecticut. He spent six years in Shanghai from 2006-2012, four years in Rio de Janeiro, and is currently based in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Twitter@ForeignDevil666