Archive for Scarborough Shoal
The current standoff in the South China Sea reported in the BBC has the potential to be the beginning of something far larger in scale. The standoff is between China and the Philippines, and the area of contention is Scarborough Shoal, a small atoll of islands and reefs that lies well within the Philippines 200 mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) dictated by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (above). However, along with most of the rest of the South China Sea, China claims the atoll belongs to them. On Sunday (8th April), the Philippine’s largest warship, on a routine patrol of the area, found eight Chinese fishing vessels around Scarborough Shoal. Upon boarding one, the Philippine navy found a large amount of illegally caught fish and coral. Two days after this, two Chinese navy surveillance vessels arrived on the scene and positioned themselves between the fishing vessels and the Philippine warship, foiling any attempts the latter had to arrest the fishermen. Tensions grew yet further with news, reported in the BBC today (Thursday 12th April), that a Philippine coastguard vessel was to join the warship to face down the Chinese.
China claims territory within the 200 mile EEZs of five other countries around the South China Sea: Brunei, Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam and Taiwan. Regional flare-ups have happened in the past but they have, as yet, not ended in violence. One factor that must be taken into account when studying the geopolitics of the region is the possibility that a large amount of oil and gas resides beneath the Sea. This maybe one reason why China has been bolstering its navy in recent years, a move that makes it now the second largest naval force in the world after the USA with over 500 combat vessels. The People’s Liberation Army’s Navy also trialled its first aircraft carrier in the South China Sea.
However, another factor that is sure to play a part in regional tensions in this part of the world is fish. It is interesting to note that although the confrontational nature of the Chinese surveillance vessels off Scarborough Shoal maybe to safeguard the area for future fossil fuel exploitation, it kicked off because of illegal fishing around the islands. With 70% of the world’s fish stocks being fished close to, already at, or beyond capacity has led experts to predict a catastrophic collapse in worldwide fish-stocks by the year 2048. Coastal communities in south-eastern Asian countries such as China and the Philippines have traditionally relied upon fish as a main source of protein and as fish populations decline, fishermen are having to travel further afield to satisfy demand. Not only does this have a devastating effect on the marine environment (from unsustainable fishing practices alone), but it also causes territorial disputes such as the one brewing around the Scarborough Shoal.
The fact that the Philippine navy is about to commence naval exercises alongside the US Navy in the same area makes for an interesting, and possibly fatal, few months. Although it is by no means certain that hostilities will commence (actually it is extremely unlikely as the last thing either the USA or China want is a clash), the fact that a standoff is even happening is because, presumably, the Chinese fishing vessels cannot find enough fish in areas of water that are less contested. This of course does not take into account the possibility that the boats were deliberately sent to the Shoal to reinforce China’s claim on the area.
Nobody wants a naval war to start in the South China Sea. Exploiting oil and gas reserves would become very difficult if it did. However, China does need to decide what is a more important resource: oil or fish. The former may matter more for the economy but the latter may be worth more to the population. Riots have started for far less than an increase in the price of fish. If it turns out that fish is a more important resource, then we here at LMV would not be surprised if clashes do happen in the South China Sea.