The dispute between the Philippines and China over a tiny shoal in the South China Sea has escalated but now appears to be easing again. The dispute began April 10 when the Philippines navy accused Chinese boats of fishing illegally near the Scarborough Shoal (known as the Huangyan Islands in China and Panatag Shoal in the Philippines), an area rich with oil and minerals. Since then the rhetoric has escalated as both sides claim sovereignty over the tiny islands. From the New York Times:
The South China Sea has become a major testing ground of China’s foreign policy and its growing maritime power, even as the top Communist Party leadership is preoccupied by a power struggle before the 18th Party Congress to be held this fall. Some Western analysts have suggested that Beijing’s increasing belligerence with the Philippines is aimed at shoring up domestic public opinion during a delicate transition period by using the issue of sovereignty as a popular rallying point.
The People’s Liberation Army Daily, the newspaper of the army, ran a tough editorial on Wednesday saying that China would not stand for anyone snatching the sovereignty of Huangyan Island. “Not only the Chinese government will not agree, neither will the Chinese people, and the Chinese Army will disagree even more,” the editorial said.
At the Foreign Ministry, a spokesman, Hong Lei, said at the regular briefing Thursday that the Philippines should stop escalating tensions and warned that Manila must take responsibility for the dispute over the island.
A particularly virulent editorial in the official Global Times threatened that, “Peace will be a luxury if tensions continue to rise.”
After China held up imports of bananas from the Philippines and canceled tourist trips to the country, residents in Filipino cities rallied outside Chinese consulates. The Chinese government cautioned citizens from traveling near the protests. The Telegraph reports:
China International Travel Service, the state-owned tourism operator, yesterday suspended ties with the Philippines after organisers announced plans to demonstrate outside Chinese embassy buildings and property today.
Beijing also issued a travel advisory warning its citizens to keep a low profile. “Avoid going out at all if possible, and if not, to avoid going out alone,” it said. “If you come across any demonstrations, leave the area, do not stay to watch.”
The Philippines government supported the rights of protesters to express themselves but said all protests were citizen initiatives and not organized by the government. From ABS-CBN News:
“The protests are the initiatives of private citizens. Freedom of expression and peaceful assembly are enshrined in the constitution. We urge the participants to exercise their rights responsibly,” Deputy Presidential Spokeswoman Abigail Valte said.
Presidential spokesperson Edwin Lacierda downplayed reports that China is bullying the Philippines by scrapping the country as a tourist destination and for imposing rigid inspection of Philippine fruit exports.
“The concern over our banana exports to China is a sanitary and phytosanitary issue, and the Department of Agriculture through the Bureau of Plant Industry is addressing this with its counterpart agency for quarantine in China,” he said.
The U.S. plays a key role in this dispute despite its geographic remove. From the Telegraph:
As the dispute escalated, Leon Panetta, the US defence secretary, met senators in a push to ratify a treaty that would bolster legal backing for US naval patrols in dispute regions such as the South China Sea.
Seizing on warnings of the dangers of escalating “gunboat diplomacy” Mr Panetta called on the senate to ratify the Laws of the Sea, a UN treaty that has been hindered by procedural disputes.
“By moving off the sidelines and leading the discussion, we would be able to influence those treaty bodies that develop and interpret the Law of the Sea,” he said. “In that way, we would ensure that our rights are not whittled away by the excessive claims and erroneous interpretations of others.”
American officials also announced the deployment of Littoral Combat Ships, a new generation of vessels that would allow the US much more extensive coverage of Asian sea lanes including the Strait of Malacca, as well as areas disputed by China.
On Friday, however, the possibility of an easing in tensions was reported as a diplomatic solution was broached. From CNN:
In Manila, Department of Foreign Affairs spokesman Raul Hernandez said that Philippine diplomats “are endeavoring to undertake a new diplomatic initiative, which we hope will help defuse the situation.”
China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei told reporters that China had noted the remarks as well as the action taken by the Philippine Foreign Ministry and noticed the resumption of diplomatic contact between the Philippine Foreign Ministry and the Chinese Embassy in Manila.