China and the Philippines are currently engaged in a wrasslin’ match over who gets to control a piece of land in the South China Sea known as Scarborough Shoal (Huangyan Island in Chinese).  To look at the seriousness of the the case, let’s look at the shoal itself:

Yep, on a rainy day you might not even be able to fit anyone on it.  Anyway, China claims the shoal as its own because the surrounding area is rich in fish, and beneath the seabed there might be extensive reserves of oil and natural gas.

As you can see in the map, the island is vastly closer to the Philippines than to China.  Following the UNCLOS definition of Exclusive Economic Zone, the shoal is well within 200 nautical miles of the Philippine mainland, so it should fall under their jurisdiction.  The shoal is about 1000 nm from China, or about 30 hours in a fishing boat.  Both China and the Philippines are signatories to UNCLOS, so it seems pretty clear cut.

However, China is infamous for their declaration of the “Nine Dotted Line,” or their unilateral assertion that the vast majority of the South China Sea and its islands belong exclusively to China.  Chinese claims go back to dynastic times when China says they discovered and claimed this area, but only recently have they started enforcing this with naval military vessels.

The case that’s caused the uproar over the past few weeks started when a Filipino coast guard vessel tried to arrest a group of Chinese fisherman who were fishing near the shoal.  Chinese coast guard vessels came to the rescue and blocked the Philippine forces from making the arrest.  Both sides then spat a lot of fury at each other, but eventually everyone went home.

Chinese reporting on the case has been incredibly, amazingly one-sided.  In every publication I’ve read in both Chinese and English, the media is portraying this as a serious and deliberate attempt to essentially, invade part of China.  Chinese netizens are even more vicious than the most nationalistic newspapers, claiming that a war with the Philippines would be ideal to protect this part of of sovereign territory.    The government and media aren’t helping in the slightest:

On May 8, 2012, Director-General of the Department of Boundary and Ocean Affairs of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Deng Zhonghua received the interview on the issue of Huangyan Island by Moderator Anthony Yuen of Phoenix Satellite TV’s News Talk. Deng introduced the background of the Huangyan Island issue and China’s position and policy proposition. He stressed that the Philippines should return to the right track of seeking diplomatic solution to the Huangyan Island issue. The following is the text of the interview.


Yuen: The Philippines claims that Huangyan Island is its territory, but the whole world knows this argument is very far-fetched. Could you tell us what is wrong with the Philippines from the standpoint of law and jurisprudence?

Deng: thank you, Mr. Yuen. It is undisputable and crystal clear that Huangyan Island is China’s territory. Talking about this, I would like to say that a lot of historical facts fully prove Huangyan Island is Chinese territory. Several hundred of years ago or even one thousand years ago, the Chinese have engaged in activities in the Huangyan Island waters. It is recorded in the Chinese history and I do not need to elaborate on this. But I want to say that all the previous naming of the islands in the South China Sea by the Chinese government includes Huangyan Island.

So much for trying to see the other point of view.  Rome also named a lot of cities a thousand years ago, does that mean they still have sovereignty over them?  The inability to even try and see where the Philippines is coming from and using these silly historical evidence is not becoming of a great power.  During the Yuan dynasty China was ruled by Mongols.  Perhaps Mongolia should stake a claim on mainland China?

The Philippine side is somewhat better.  Notably, there was an editorial that many papers have referenced which says the shoal belongs to China <>.  Chinese papers are loving this because in their mind, it’s an admission of defeat.  Of course Chinese papers are also structurally prohibited from saying “It belongs to the Philippines,” but that distinction evades them.

The Philippines has also been accused by several members of ASEAN for hijacking recent talks and turning them into “us against China” diatribes.  Observers have also noted that were it not for the Philippines’ relationship with the US, there wouldn’t be such a big issue.  Malaysia and Vietnam also have disputes that haven’t escalated in recent years, so why the Philippines.  Disclaimer: Vietnam did fight a war with China over disputed islands in the 1980s, and lost about 70 soldiers and a few naval vessels.

At a time when other nations are leery of a rising China (Vietnam, Burma, and Australia to name a few), China is going about this rather poorly.  It seems like they are merely doing this to appease domestic audiences ahead of the leadership transition at the end for 2012.  The Philippines wants to settle this at the UN, but China refuses because in their view, it would be the same as discussing the sovereignty of Shanghai or Guangdong.  “Why do we need to discuss the sovereignty of a place that’s already theirs?” they claim.  A somewhat flimsy argument, but one that’s at least somewhat logical.

Clearly, I’m not a fan of China’s line of reasoning.  But I think there is room for compromise.  To be fair, China is a huge country, yet it’s exposure to the coast is relatively small, especially compared to the US, India, Russia, Canada, and others.  It is bound to the east by Japan, so I think it would be reasonable at giving China a larger part of the South China Sea than the 200nm to which it’s entitled as a signatory of UNCLOS.

The dark blue area is sea that does not belong to any one country based on UNCLOS.  Even if it wasn’t an explicit declaration, I think there’s a case to give China sovereignty over at least the northern portion of this area, if not all of it.  Perhaps in return, China would promise more investment in SE Asian countries or some nominal sharing of oil revenues (if any) to be found here.

The unique geography of the Philippines gives it a disproportionate advantage in the Spratly islands near Palawan Island (especially considering the Philippines is unbound by other countries to the east), so there is a case for either joint exploration here by Asean, or some other effort to dilute Philippine claims here.  I think this is realistic to look at and fair to China as well.

China is unlikely to accept this sort of bargain in public, but hopefully some behind the scenes maneuvering can make it happen.  Fairly or not, many think of China as a bully in this region.  Dealing with these issues in a mature, multilateral way will increase Chinese influence throughout the region.  Sending in the heavy naval ships will only further the impression of the big Chinese bully, and kill any ambitions China has for being the regional hegemon