Editor's Pick News South China Sea: Waters of Contention

​No Chinese withdrawal from Scarborough shoal seen despite improved relations between Manila and Beijing

Ambassador to China Santiago “Chito” Sta. Romana does not see Chinese leader Xi Jinping ordering the withdrawal of Chinese Coast Guard ships from Scarborough shoal and returning to the pre-April 8, 2012 situation, when the area was under the control of the Philippines, despite Beijing’s improved relations with the Rodrigo Duterte government.

At best, it remains an “aspiration” that would take a long time, the Filipino diplomat said in an interview on the sidelines of the Philippine Association for Chinese Studies Conference in Mandaluyong City Dec. 2.

China “is still claiming all of Spratlys,” said Sta. Romana, noting that Xi would insist during talks that Scarborough Shoal is China’s territory, and its government would lose face if it were to withdraw its vessels from the shoal.

Ambassador to China Santiago Sta. Romana says it would take a long time for the situation in the Scarborough Shoal to go back to pre-April 8, 2012, before things turned sour with China. (Photo by Arianne Christian Tapao)

“Given that, you really have to maneuver slowly, carefully,” he added.

“If we want to go back to pre-2012 situation, the condition is that China will also say drop your Arbitral Tribunal award, which is impossible,” Sta Romana said in Filipino.

Scarborough Shoal, also known as Bajo de Masinloc and Panatag shoal, is a 90-square-kilometer triangular-shaped coral reef, which has several rocks encircling a lagoon 124 nautical miles from the town of Masinloc, Zambales in central Luzon. It is called Huangyan Dao by China, which also claims it under its all-encompassing nine-dash line map.

As part of its economic exclusive zone, the Philippines had control over Scarborough Shoal until April 8, 2012 when a Philippine warship arrested Chinese fishing vessels, which led to a three-month standoff between the two claimant countries, and the Aquino government filing a complaint against China before the Arbitral Court in The Hague.

The Arbitral Court declared China’s nine-dash line map invalid, but said Scarborough Shoal is a traditional fishing ground for Filipino, Chinese (including Taiwanese) and Vietnamese fishermen.

China remains in control of Scarborough Shoal with three Surveillance Ships permanently stationed in the area.

Since November last year, China has allowed Filipino fishermen to fish in the surrounding waters of Scarborough shoal.

One of the three Chinese Coastguard Maritime Surveillance ships in Scarborough shoal in April 2012.

“Disputes remain, the challenges remain, but now we have found a method, a mechanism, and part of this is importance of strategic cooperation,” Sta. Romana said in a speech at the conference.

“A key component of this is not to put the disputes at the center or at the focus of your foreign policy,” he said, adding that the adversarial approach that the Benigno Aquino III administration took is all “water down the bridge.”

“The thinking before, what’s ours is ours, we should assert,” Sta. Romana said. “We were hoping that the (United States) would help. That’s the wrong assumption.”

As opposed to the previously used legalistic approach, the current administration employs both bilateral and multilateral approaches in a friendly, cooperative atmosphere. “You have this deck of cards, and the question is how you will improve relations,” Sta. Romana added, saying, “We have great progress on the deck of cards that we have dealt with.”

He said the goal of the Duterte administration is to prevent more losses and regain what have been lost.

Yet Jay Batongbacal, director of the University of the Philippines’ Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea, had warned in a Nov. 24 forum that cooperation with China must be taken with a grain of salt, noting the reality of what happens between legal right and raw power.

He said too much cooperation may lead to “national economic bondage and political dependence,” and could translate into China’s unwarranted influence over the Philippines’ policy and decision-making.

More, if the Arbitral Tribunal award were to be finally raised, “will it really be just a piece of paper?” Batongbacal asked.

“We maintain our position, but it will not reverse the situation. But it will help ease the tensions further” Sta Romana pointed out, adding that other options remain for Manila.

The Philippines, he said, keeps a “friend to all, enemy to none” attitude, which means that it continues to foster good ties with the US and other nations like Japan and India, for instance.

The problem is that people think there should be an alliance against one country, but it would only escalate tensions, he explained.

Instead, the Philippines tries to place itself in a situation wherein it has good relations with all other countries. “It doesn’t have to be in the same scale,” Sta. Romana said.

The foundation to be able to maintain these, he said, remains in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, he added.

“The destiny of the Philippines lies in Asia and our immediate neighbors.”

ASEAN and China have agreed on a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea, but details will be negotiated only starting next year. The COC, however, will not cover bilaterally disputed areas like the Scarborough shoal.

Other countries that claim the South China Sea in part or in whole are Taiwan, Malaysia, Brunei and Vietnam.