Foreign Relations & International Law

Water Wars: All Eyes Turn to Scarborough Shoal

Chris Mirasola
Friday, November 4, 2016, 8:20 AM

Philippine vessels access fishing grounds around Scarborough Shoal

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Philippine vessels access fishing grounds around Scarborough Shoal

NO RESTRICTION This time, a Filipino fisherman is undisturbed by Chinese coast guards while fishing at Panatag Shoal off Zambales province. RICHARD A. REYES

Filipino fishermen regain access to waters around Scarborough Shoal (Photo: The Inquirer)

Two weeks ago Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte visited Beijing, where he signed a number of memoranda of understanding promising greater economic and military cooperation. Since that meeting reports have suggested that a potential deal was emerging that would enable Filipino vessels to return to traditional fishing grounds at Scarborough Shoal, a disputed reef 123 miles west of the Philippines that has been under Chinese control since 2012. Last Friday, Presidential Spokesperson Ernesto Abella confirmed that an informal deal had in fact emerged, stating that Filipinos “are now able to fish in the area without being intercepted.” The exact terms of what some call a newfound “modus vivendi” at Scarborough Shoal, however, have been much less clear.

Reports this week indicate that Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana was incorrect when he stated that, “there are no longer Chinese ships, Coastguard or navy, in the Scarborough area.” Satellite imagery from the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, for example, shows numerous Chinese Coast Guard vessels around the shoal, at least one of which is blocking entry to the lagoon inside Scarborough Shoal. Filipino fishermen have also reported that though “there’s no more harassment,” they “can’t go inside” the shoal. To complicate matters further, two Philippine Coast Guard vessels were sent yesterday to “check on the condition and situation of our fishermen in the area and to sustain what we have started.”

All of which begs the question, what does this level of increased access to traditional fishing grounds at Scarborough Shoal mean? Philippine officials are relatively bullish on the matter. Representative Harry Roque, for example, claimed that, “President Duterte’s new engagement with China led to the resumption of our fishermen’s livelihood.” National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperson said that Manila and Beijing have a “friendly” understanding and that the situation was a “win-win” for both countries. Foreign Minister Perfecto Yasay also attributed increased fisheries access to “mutual trust” between the two countries.

Chinese officials struck a similar, though slightly more reserved, note. Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Hua Chunying praised the “all around improvement of China-Philippines relations,” but cautioned that, “the Chinese side has always been exercising normal jurisdiction over [Scarborough Shoal]. The situation there is and will remain unchanged.” Reflecting some of that same caution, State Department Spokesperson Mark Toner commented that, “We’d like it to be a sign that China and the Philippines are moving towards an agreement on fishing access at Scarborough reef that would be in accordance with the July 12th arbitral decision.”

Pundits have expressed a wide range of opinions about what is happening at Scarborough Shoal. AMTI’s report, for example, notes that access to waters around, but not within, Scarborough has in fact been a recurring condition in the area since China took control of the shoal in 2012. Two pieces from Julian Ku and Chris Mirasola at Lawfare argue that access to fishing grounds within the lagoon are not necessarily required to achieve de facto compliance with the arbitral tribunal’s rulings. Many analysts, however, are more pessimistic about strategic implications. Jay Batongbacal at Rappler concludes that the Philippines has effectively accepted that China has legitimate rights over Scarborough Shoal. Xuan Loc Doan at Asia Times goes further, finding that the Philippines has “blown” its win at the arbitral tribunal. Ashley Townshend at Crossroads Today looks towards Washington, arguing that this deal is “a geopolitical setback for the United States.” The Global Times is much more optimistic, praising the deal as an example for the rest of Southeast Asia. Renato Cruz de Castro at The Diplomat takes a more moderate position, finding that Duterte is still hedging against China.

In other news...


Prime Minister Najib Razak visited China this week, where he declared closer ties between Kuala Lampur and Beijing. In an editorial at China Daily, he announced, “the first significant defence [sic] deal between our two countries, with Malaysia purchasing littoral mission ships from China” in addition to a host of trade and investment deals. In a possible swipe at the United States for its ongoing investigation of fraud at Malaysia’s sovereign wealth fund, the Prime Minister also stated that “it is not for [former colonial powers] to lecture countries they once exploited on how to conduct their own internal affairs today.” Over the past year Chinese companies have stepped in to buy assets from the highly indebted fund. In addition, Vice Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin told reporters that Chinese and Malaysian navies would increase cooperation in the South China Sea, though they “have not touched upon the details of our cooperation.” Taking a broader perspective, the Global Times concludes that this trip, in conjunction with Duterte’s recent visit, shows that “Southeast Asian countries are getting closer to China, which would not only ease disputes in the South China Sea but intensify competition between the US-Japan alliance and China.”


Chinese fishing vessels again clashed with the South Korean (ROK) Coastguard in ROK waters. The Coast Guard reports that it stopped two Chinese vessels for illegal fishing, which prompted nearly 30 other vessels to swarm the Coast Guard ship. The ROK Coast Guard fired warning shots in response; no fishermen were harmed. A similar run-in between Chinese fishermen and the ROK Coastguard occurred in mid-October. Responding to this week’s confrontation, Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Hua Chunying said that, “the Chinese side is strongly dissatisfied with the use of force” but also noted that authorities “are working hard to regulate and discipline operations by the Chinese fishermen.”

Six people are missing after a Chinese fishing boat collided with a Greek oil tanker in the East China Sea this weekend. There does not appear to be information as to whether the six crewmembers have been found. In related news for Mandarin readers, China Ocean News has a fascinating piece on Chinese aerial activity in the East China Sea.

Lastly, China debuted the Chengdu J-20 stealth fighter on Tuesday as part of a long-term plan to narrow Beijing’s military technology gap with the United States.

The Philippines

President Duterte’s Special Envoy to China and political mentor Fidel Ramos has resigned his post. In recent weeks Ramos has likened the Philippines under Duterte’s leadership to a “sinking ship” and opposed the President’s “separation” from the United States. Though an official statement is still forthcoming, an aid said that Ramos quit because “he has done his job.”

Supreme Court Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio continues to voice concern about President Duterte’s policies in the South China Sea. First, he speaks with Gregory Poling at the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative about the limits of the President’s ability to change treaty commitments. Second, he outlines possible agreements that would allow China to “save face” while also accommodating Manila’s rights, as articulated by the arbitral tribunal, in the South China Sea.

And finally, as per usual, President Duterte reasserted Manila’s independence from the United States, declaring that he could survive without conditional aid from Washington. He promised to look instead to Beijing and Moscow, claiming that Russian leaders have “told me, come here, we have everything you need and we will give it to you.”

The United States

It appears that we should be prepared for more of this type of rhetoric for the remaining months of President Obama’s administration. The State Department has stopped the planned sale of 26,000 assault rifles to Manila’s national police after Senator Ben Cardin expressed concern about human rights violations in President Duterte’s drug war. Reports indicate that police or vigilantes have killed more than 2,300 people in this anti-narcotics campaign since Duterte took office on June 30th. Other United States allies have taken a different tack. Canberra, for example, continues to provide training, support, and assistance for the Philippine police.


Defense Minister Ryamizard Ryacudu told reporters on Friday that Canberra has “more or less agreed” to joint patrols in the eastern part of the South China Sea. Minister Ryacudu said that the “peace patrol” would be aimed at combatting illegal fishing. Defense Minister Marise Payne stated that the patrols would be “consistent with Australia’s policy of exercising rights of freedom of navigation in accordance with international law.” Australia and Indonesia already conduct joint patrols in the Timor Sea to combat human trafficking and illegal fishing. Chinese media was none to happy about this news. The Global Times asserted that the joint patrol “has deepened the impression that Australia has carried out strategic collaboration with the US” and that “we cannot exclude the possibility that Indonesia, tempted by the US and Australia, would seek to maximize its own interests by walking a tightrope between China and the US.”

One month after the largest war games in Indonesia’s history, Jakarta will again stage military exercises on Natuna Island in the South China Sea. The exercises are scheduled for November 10th through the 17th and will be opened by President Joko Widodo. The Jakarta Post says that these exercises are meant to “show the world that the outer island is part of Indonesia’s territory.” The Indonesian and Philippine navies have also scheduled coordinated patrols in the Sulu Sea to increase border security.

In other news, Jakarta is still in talks with Moscow to buy “nine or ten” Sukhoi Su-35 fighter jets, though there is no timeline for closing the deal.


Following on informal condemnations last month from senior Japanese officials, Tokyo lodged an official protest over Chinese oil and gas drilling in the East China Sea. Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida said that, “it is extremely regrettable that China is maintaining its activities toward the unilateral development of the area despite our repeated protests.”

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi will visit Tokyo starting November 11th for an annual summit. They are expected to deepen defense ties, agree to joint maritime exercises, and possibly sign a civil nuclear deal.

Analysis, Commentary, and Additional Information

We start with three great pieces on US freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs). First, our very own Graham Webster compiles a useful database of all US FONOPs from 1991 to 2015 and assesses that a FONOP by Mischief Reef would raise difficult policy questions. Rod Lyon at Real Clear Defense cautions against overreliance on FONOPs, arguing that debate over FONOP minutiae is perhaps reflective of the worrying lack of policy options in the South China Sea. Finally, James Holmes at the National Interest argues that last week’s USS Decatur FONOP through the Paracel Islands did more harm than good.

Another trio of posts focused on the South China Sea’s looming fisheries crisis. China Ocean News, for our Mandarin readers, outlines how fishing vessels are used to secure China’s maritime claims. Liu Feng at the Global Times argues for systematic, internationally coordinated solutions for fisheries disputes. Kentaro Iwamoto provides an on-the-ground analysis of overfishing in the East China Sea.

Two pieces also looked at potential roles that Moscow might play in the South China Sea. Anton Tsvetov at AMTI provides an overview of Russia’s interests in the region and how they might be translated into a more muscular policy towards Asia. Artyom Lukin goes further, arguing that Russia may return to Vietnam’s Cam Ranh Bay, reestablishing Moscow’s naval presence in Southeast Asia.

Finally, three unrelated but interesting articles deserve attention. First, Shahar Hameiri at New Mandala analyzes the political economy of Duterte’s pivot towards Beijing. Second, Lyle Goldstein at the National Interest shows how China’s new Coast Guard vessels can be converted into fully operational navy frigates. Finally, Koh Swee Lean Collin at RSIS explains why Malaysia’s deal to purchase naval vessels from China should not come as a surprise.

Water Wars is our weekly roundup of the latest news, analysis, and opinions related to ongoing tensions in the South and East China Seas. Please email Chris Mirasola with breaking news, relevant documents, or corrections.

Christopher Mirasola is a JD/MPP candidate at Harvard Law School and the Kennedy School of Government, where he studies America's strategic posture in the Asia-Pacific. Prior to graduate school he worked in mainland China for over two years, much of that time focused on the Chinese legal system. Chris is currently an Executive Editor of the Harvard International Law Journal and has held a legal internship at the Naval War College and Department of Defense Office of General Counsel (International Affairs).

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