On Sunday, Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana announced that, contrary to earlier reports, Chinese vessels had not left the vicinity of Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea. He said, however, China was allowing Filipino fisherman near the contested feature.
The opening of the shoal was an important achievement for Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte after his visit to Beijing earlier this month.
Lorenzana said that at least four of China’s coast guard craft were still around Scarborough, which is just 124 nautical miles from the main Philippine island of Luzon. The feature, just rocks forming a coral lagoon, guards the mouths to strategic Manila and Subic bays. The shoal is about 550 nautical miles from the closest Chinese landmass, Hainan Island.
China seized Scarborough in early 2012 by dishonoring an agreement, brokered by Washington, to withdraw its craft. Both Manila and Beijing claim the shoal, which is inside China’s infamous—and now invalidated—“nine-dash line.” For the last four years, the Chinese have used forceful tactics to keep Philippine craft away from the feature.
Beijing in recent months had signaled it would reclaim and fortify Scarborough, just as it had done with Mischief Reef, seized from Manila in 1994, and several features in the Spratly chain in recent years. There are reports President Obama in March warned Xi Jinping, his Chinese counterpart, against cementing over Scarborough. The American leader may have delivered the same message in September at the G20 meeting in Hangzhou.
In any event, the Chinese refrained from fortifying Scarborough and now Filipinos have unfettered access to the shoal. It is not clear, however, how long the Chinese will allow Philippine fishing vessels to sail these waters.
On one hand, China may keep the feature open indefinitely. After all, allowing Philippine fishing craft there supports Beijing’s new friend, Duterte. By giving the brash Filipino a big win, China is enticing Manila to abandon the US, which is the only nation that is obligated by treaty to defend the territorial integrity of the Philippines.
Yet there is a limit as to how far Beijing can go in giving Duterte what he wants. China’s Communist Party, especially in the last few years, has staked its legitimacy on defending Chinese territory, and permitting Filipinos to fish in waters inside the nine-dash line violates what Beijing claims is the country’s sovereignty.
To protect that sovereignty, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying on Monday said there had been no change of jurisdiction over Scarborough. Beijing, she said, merely “made some arrangements on issues of Duterte’s interest for the good of the two countries’ friendship.”
At the moment, Scarborough is no longer a flashpoint, as it has been for more than four years. That’s progress in a sense. Yet the postponement of the crisis has not resolved the long-term confrontation over the nine-dash line claim.
Beijing demands everything inside that line, including various features close to the main islands of the Philippines and which Manila believes are its own. Duterte, of course, cannot hand Scarborough—or any other reef for that matter—to China. That would be true even if Manila’s sovereignty claims were weak as a matter of international law. Yet those claims look especially strong after The Hague’s July 12 lopsided arbitral decision against Beijing in the landmark case Philippines vs. China.
Duterte, therefore, still needs a solution for the larger standoff. One can argue that the Philippine president’s China’s diplomacy has bought some time, but the day of reckoning has yet to come as Chinese craft sail the waters of Scarborough.