The Shoal that Will Start It All
By Erick San Juan
It has been a little over four years now since the two-month stand-off between China and the Philippines sea vessels in the Scarborough Shoal (Bajo de Masinloc) that has caused us to let China seized the shoal.
And now… China will establish an outpost on Scarborough Shoal, 230 kilometres (143 miles) off the Philippine coast, the South China Morning Post newspaper cited an unnamed source close to the People’s Liberation Army as saying.
It seems that what we have been saying all along that the battleground for the next world war would be here in our country is coming to realization, unfortunately for all of us.
From the article “A Scarborough ‘shoaldown’: An opportunity to push back against Beijing” by Harry Kazianis, April 22, 2016 : “So is there any place on the map where China could be challenged, a spot where Washington and its regional partners could turn the tables, making their intentions known that Beijing’s coercive actions will now come at the steepest of costs, and that they will no longer be able to do so easily disrupt the status-quo?
Enter Scarborough Shoal.
Essentially stolen from The Philippines back in 2012 after the US helped broker a de-escalation of tensions–sitting clearly in Manila’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) — could be the place where America could slow or possibly halt China’s dangerous ambitions.
So why pick Scarborough Shoal to make a stand and why now? Because according to various reports, it seems likely to be Beijing’s next island reclamation project. A report in The Diplomat explains that, “China is poised to take “decisive and provocative action” in the Spratly Islands. These sources report that China may dynamite Scarborough Shoal to build an artificial island to house military facilities…”
Scary indeed because this possible move by China in the Scarborough Shoal will ultimately put the last nail in the coffin for the country’s hope of getting back some parts of our territory. The following is from the Lecture delivered for the Cartographic Exhibit Forum by Dr. Jay L. Batongbacal, Director, UP Institute for Maritime Affairs & Law of the Sea, September 26, 2014) : Bajo de Masinloc (Scarborough Shoal) is one of the oldest known fishing grounds of the Philippines, from its awakening as an independent nation-state. Previously, it was known as Scarborough Shoal, and published maps of the Commonwealth Period even included Scarborough Shoal among the natural resources of the Philippine Islands, particularly in its inventory of fishing banks.
Clearly therefore, the Philippines had been exercising exclusive jurisdiction over the shoal since at least the 19th century under Spain, and expanded such exercises in the 20th century under the United States and as an independent republic. It did not only begin exercising jurisdiction in 1946: it was actually continuing the exercise of pre-existing jurisdictions that matured into full sovereignty. In our Constitution, Scarborough Shoal is included as among the territories “over which the Government of the Philippine Islands exercises jurisdiction” (1935 Constitution), then “by historic right or legal title” (1973 Constitution), and then “all other territories over which the Philippines has sovereignty or jurisdiction” (1987 Constitution).
Second, if Bajo de Masinloc/ Scarborough Shoal was indeed included as part of the archipelago transferred by the United States to the independent Republic of the Philippines, then it is arguably Philippine island territory subject to American defense commitments under the Philippines-US Mutual Defense Treaty. This is important in light of the most prominent means by which China now asserts its claims to the South China Sea: through the use of its lightly-armed but large coast guard vessels against foreign ships, and more recently thru reclamation activities.
Under present circumstances, the only thing that prevents legal commitments under the MDT- Mutual Defense Treaty from being invoked are that there has not yet been “an armed attack…on the island territories under its jurisdiction in the Pacific Ocean, its armed forces, public vessels or aircraft in the Pacific” per the terms of the MDT. If China were to aggressively use its vessels in the same way as it did this year with Vietnam, and ram or sink Philippine vessels, it could qualify as an armed attack that would engage US defense commitments under Articles IV and V of the MDT.
If China were to attempt to install a station on, or undertake reclamation of, Bajo de Masinloc/Scarborough Shoal to transform it into an artificial island, it would amount to nothing less than a permanent taking of a piece of Philippine territory, and therefore be considered a direct threat to the territorial integrity of the country. The Philippines would then be entirely justified in sending public ships to impede or prevent such taking. If China then responds in the same way as it did with Vietnam with respect to the oil rig HS 981, by deploying a protective fleet of ships to block and ram such Philippine vessels, then it will thereby be carrying out a threat of an external armed attack while actually taking the shoal. This then comes within the terms of Article III of the MDT, and the defense commitments under the MDT may be invoked.
China’s continuing blockade of Bajo de Masinloc/Scarborough Shoal is thus skirting a very fine and dangerous line; it has pushed the envelope to the point that just one mistake will qualify its actions as an armed attack under the MDT. The question that must be asked and seriously considered now is whether and how the Philippine Government is preparing for these scenarios and contingencies.”
So this next move of China in reclaiming land in the Scarborough Shoal/Bajo de Masinloc is not the same as what they did in other parts of the disputed area due to the fact that it is ours as part of our EEZ, Exclusive Economic Zone. A move by it's commander-in-chief Xi Jinping (his new title) to cover his domestic problem by creating an external war front which I have been saying as "Painting in the West and Fighting in the East."
With the implementation of EDCA and positioning of the US virtual military bases already in place, will the great Uncle Sam fight for our right in the contested area?
As for Harry Kazianis, “Some would argue there is nothing the United States can do — well, short of war according to one expert, to halt China’s assault on the status-quo. Scarborough Shoal offers the perfect opportunity for Washington to begin to signal to Beijing that its actions from now on will have consequences–something the Obama Administration has failed to do. But the question as always is this: Will Washington act before it’s too late?”