Mong Palatino

blogging about the philippine left and southeast asian politics since 2004


@mongster is a manila-based activist, former philippine legislator, and blogger/analyst of asia-pacific affairs.

French philosopher Voltaire once wrote a story about the mad behavior of men going to war over a “few lumps of earth.” In Southeast Asia, there are numerous small and midsize conflicts between countries over temples, borders, islets, reefs, shoals, and even puny rock formations that disappear during high tide.

For example, Thailand and Cambodia are feuding over the ownership of the historic Preah Vihear temple and the four square kilometers of territory around it. The conflict intensified in 2008, which led to some deadly exchanges of fires between border troops. It strained the relations of two erstwhile friendly neighbors and, more tragically, it reinforced ultra-nationalism and xenophobia in their countries. Last February, renewed clashes resulted in lives lost on both sides.

For several decades, Singapore and Malaysia contested the ownership of several islands, namely Pedra Branca, Middle Rocks and South Ledge, which are all strategically located at the eastern entrance of the Singapore Strait. Middle Rocks consists of two clusters of small rocks, while South Ledge is visible only at low tide. Fortunately, the International Court of Justice in 2008 recognized Singapore as the owner of Pedra Branca and gave Middle Rocks to Malaysia.

The Paracel Islands, meanwhile, are being claimed by Vietnam, China, and Taiwan, while Indonesia and Malaysia have a longstanding dispute over maritime naval borders in the Malacca Strait, which has led to several coastal patrol detentions of fishing boats of the two countries. Recently, the decades-long maritime dispute in the Bay of Bengal, which involved Burma and Bangladesh, was finally resolved by the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea.

The active flashpoint today is in the Scarborough Shoal, located in the South China Sea or West Philippine Sea. It’s a chain of reefs and rocks claimed by China, the Philippines, and Taiwan. China is accused of using its superior force to assert ownership of the territory. Its decision to dispatch oversized quasi-civilian boats near the shoal is interpreted by many Filipinos as an act of bullying and aggression.

But the main conflict in the region involves the resource rich Spratly Islands, which are being claimed by six countries: China, Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia, Brunei, and the Philippines. Tension is permanently high in the area because of the military posts established by the claimants. If the dispute isn’t resolved diplomatically today or in the near future, it could potentially trigger a broader conflict in the Asia-Pacific.

Could the little spats over Scarborough, the Paracels, Pedra Branca, and the Malacca Strait lead to a bigger clash over the Spratlys? Are they just a sideshow to the main event? Are they just a foretaste of the real tragedy that will befall the region if the Spratlys dispute explodes into a Southeast Asian War? Diplomacy and peace must be given the chance to succeed now.

Written for The Diplomat

Why Filipinos Are Angry at China

Do Filipinos hate China? Social media networks and other online forums in the Philippines are breathing fire as Filipinos continue to post vitriolic comments over China’s “aggressive” behavior in the South China Sea or West Philippine Sea. In particular, Filipinos resent the claim made by China that the Scarborough Shoal is part of Chinese territory when in fact it has been a known fishing ground of Filipino fisher folk for hundreds of years.

The situation worsened when the Chinese and Philippine governments engaged in a heated war of words for several weeks, which fanned the flames of ultra nationalism in both countries. It didn’t help that warships or oversized “fishing boats” were dispatched by the two countries near the disputed shoal. Unsurprisingly, Filipinos cheered the decision of their government to strongly condemn and confront the “bullying” behavior of China.

The heightened tension near Scarborough exposed the inferior military capabilities of the Philippines, a point that was invoked by some Filipino politicians when they demanded the entry of more U.S. troops and warships in the Philippines. The Philippines and United States have a mutual defense treaty that many Filipinos interpret as a guarantee that Americans will defend the Philippines if the latter is attacked by another country.

If diplomatic efforts to resolve the Scarborough issue should fail, it might trigger a broader conflict in the region involving other countries that are also claiming the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea. Military superpowers like the United States and Russia, which have geopolitical interests in the Asia-Pacific, might be dragged into the crisis as well.

Therefore, both China and the Philippines have an equal responsibility to work out a peaceful solution to the standoff. The Philippines should review its plan to conduct more war games with foreign troops near Scarborough or the Spratlys since the military exercises there can provoke a hostile response from China and other claimants. For its part, China must prove that it’s a good neighbor that has no intention of using its economic and military might to dominate smaller nations like the Philippines.

For the sake of regional harmony, China must endeavor to study the source or sources of enmity that it intentionally or unintentionally generates among its neighbors.

Rightly or wrongly, many Filipinos perceive China today as a giant nation that disregards the rights of its poorer neighbors. After being colonized by Spain for more than 300 years, and then by the United States for half a century, Filipinos are naturally wary of unusual foreign troop deployments that could in their minds lead to invasion in the future. As a country that also suffered colonization in the past, China should be the first to understand the apprehension felt by many Filipinos today.

But more than the Scarborough affair, there could be other issues as well which might have contributed to the disturbing surge in resentment expressed by Filipinos towards China today. Perhaps Scarborough was merely the public outburst of a long repressed sentiment.

There’s no doubt that majority of Filipinos who openly criticized China whether online or offline did it to assert the country’s sovereignty. But maybe there was also an unconscious desire to hit back at China, in particular over its stubborn refusal to listen to the appeal of Filipinos to stop the execution of Filipino drug mules. Since 2011, China has executed several Filipino “drug mules” despite the request of the Philippines to suspend the death sentence. In a country where 10 million overseas workers are described as modern heroes, and where the death penalty law has been repealed already, China’s decision to ignore all appeals made by Filipinos to save the lives of their countrymen must have deeply offended the collective feelings of a nation.

We should also recognize that China’s rise as an economic powerhouse has produced uneven consequences in the region. In the Philippines, it meant good business for importers and skilled workers. But the local manufacturing sector suffered tremendously as investors shifted their operations to China. Farmers also complained that they couldn’t compete with the cheaper agricultural products from China that have flooded the local markets in recent years.

When Filipinos discuss Philippine-China relationship, the focus is on Scarborough and the Spratlys. This is understandable because of its international significance and the patriotism it instantly engenders. But maybe it’s about time to start a national conversation about the future of the country in relation to China’s emergence as the new superpower of the world. Territorial disputes shouldn’t overshadow equally important issues in defining the Philippine-China relationship like trade, migrant rights, cultural ties, and even regional security.

Written for The Diplomat

One Response to “Scarborough Shoal a Precursor?”

  1. tang ina mo at sampu ng mga kasama mong bayaran ng tsina, kakain kayo ng bala bago man mag umpisa ang digmaan!

    taga kyoka

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