“Whoever takes the first shot will face the full wrath of the consequences,” roared an upper tier rep for the Chinese government on the television news last night.
Earlier this week a Chinese government boat prevented the Philippines navy from arresting a group of Chinese fishermen off the coast of an otherwise insignificant atoll in the South China Sea called Scarborough Shoal, and released a hell storm of political and military tensions in the region.
Scarborough Shoal is among 200 or so islands in the South China Sea — including the Spratly and Paracel Islands — that are claimed by multiple countries in the region. Referred to by the Chinese as Huangyan Island, China’s ownership of Scarborough Shoal is contested by the Philippines and Taiwan. Every couple of years tensions heat up around the 150 square kilometer pile of barren rock poking out of the sea.
The Philippines claim that China broke the Declaration of the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea by interfering with their Navy’s attempt to arrest a group of Chinese fishermen who took refuge on Scarborough Shoal in a storm. China says that the Philippines has no right to be anywhere around Scarborough Shoal as it has been Chinese since the Ming Dynasty. The Philippines teamed up with the USA and began a session of “war games” near the shoal while China teamed up with Russia and did some joint naval maneuvers in the area.
And the pissing match got worse from there.
To regain face the Philippines stated that they are going to open up an elementary school on Zhongye Island, which is also claimed by China; while the governor of China’s Hainan Island issued a rebuttal and said that they were going to advance tourism ventures in the Paracels Islands, which is also claimed by the Philippines. Territorial claims in the South China Sea are so contested that any one country proposing a unilateral project anywhere in the region is a good way to offend the other countries who are also vying for control.
Nobody cared too much for this spattering of very small and uninhabited islands in the South China Sea until it was suggested in the 1970s that their could be oil and natural gas in the region. All of a sudden the territorial claims began flying from China, the Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam, and Brunei. China clashed with Vietnam in military engagements three times over various island possessions since then, and the South China Sea became a hotbed of political conflict.
No party currently involved seems to be foolish enough to believe that it can take the upper hand in the area without going to war, and in 2002 an agreement was made that nobody would do anything in the region — except, perhaps, patrol the islands to make sure that none of their rivals have stepped over the line.
Apparently, the Philippines felt that line was crossed when they caught a gaggle of Chinese fishing boats taking refuge in a lagoon near a useless atoll with their holds full of reputedly illegally caught fish.
This political shit storm raises it’s head every few years in East Asia, as nobody has yet come up with a way to share the potential resources in the region or divide them up once and for all. Big words are often spoken, but they seem to be mere facades. The major players in the world economy know that they are now too intertwined and dependent on each other to invest in a major armed conflict. But if anybody makes a move the fallout could have global ramifications. On one side is China, Russia, and the rest of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, on the other is the Philippines — who are militarily backed by the USA — and the rest of the ASEAN states. Unless a vast cache of oil is confirmed it is unlikely that any country in the conflict will take the first shot.
Until then it’s all just farts in the wind.