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China Starts to Claim the Seas

Author: Max Boot, Jeane J. Kirkpatrick Senior Fellow for National Security Studies
June 24, 2012
Wall Street Journal

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The hardheaded case for President Obama's foreign policy rests on twin pillars: He is a tough commander in chief who does not hesitate to slay the nation's enemies, and he is "pivoting" from the Middle East to East Asia to confront the No. 1 threat to American power—China. There is some truth to both claims, but their essential hollowness has been revealed by a little-noticed defeat the U.S. has just suffered in a place few Americans have ever heard of.

Scarborough Shoal is a minuscule rock formation in the South China Sea that was discovered by an unlucky British East India Company ship, the Scarborough, which grounded there in 1784. This outcropping has been claimed by both China and the Philippines because of the rich fishing beds that surround it and the possibility of drilling for oil.

You would think that the Philippines would have the better claim, having built a lighthouse and planted its flag there in the 1960s. The shoal is only 140 miles west of Luzon, the main Philippine island, well within Manila's 200-mile "exclusive economic zone" as recognized under international law. It is 750 miles from the Chinese landmass.

Nevertheless, China is trying to assert its sovereignty over nine-tenths of the South China Sea based on tendentious historical "evidence" ranging from purported trips by Chinese explorers 2,000 years ago to a 1947 map issued by China's Nationalist government and recognized by no other state.

However unconvincing its claims, China is attempting to make good on them by sending fishing vessels and paramilitary patrol boats into disputed waters. In early April, a Philippine navy ship tried to prevent Chinese fishermen from poaching seafood from the area. Two armed boats from the Chinese Marine Surveillance Agency intervened and a standoff ensued.

Over the past two months, China sent more than 20 ships to the shoal, including as many as seven paramilitary vessels. The Philippines' interests were protected by two Coast Guard cutters. The standoff finally ended, at least for the time being, when the Philippines withdrew its vessels rather than risk losing them in an approaching typhoon.

The U.S. is bound to protect the Philippines under the terms of a 1951 treaty. Yet even as our ally was being bullied by China, the Obama administration adopted a pose of studied neutrality.

The Philippines has offered to submit the Scarborough Shoal dispute to an international tribunal under the Law of the Sea Treaty, which both Beijing and Manila have signed. But China refuses, no doubt knowing it would lose. The Chinese leadership must figure they have a better chance to assert their claim by force majeure because there is no way a weak state like the Philippines can stand up to them.

The Obama administration did not orchestrate an international campaign to rally support for the Philippines. And it failed to take the most dramatic step of all by not sending an American destroyer or other warship to Scarborough Shoal. Would doing so have risked war with China? Hardly. In fact China is the classic bully with a glass jaw.

For evidence, look no further than the tiny Pacific Island of Palau. In late March, at virtually the same time that the Scarborough Shoal standoff was beginning, a Chinese fishing vessel illegally entered Palau's waters. When the poachers ignored repeated demands that they leave an area designated as a shark sanctuary, police from Palau's Fish and Wildlife Division opened fire, trying to sink the offending vessel.

The result: one fisherman dead and 25 captured. A couple of weeks later, under the terms of a deal with China, the poachers were fined $1,000 each and flown back home. The Chinese must have been furious, but their diplomat on the scene had nothing to say except "it is a good outcome."

No one is suggesting that either the Philippine or U.S. navies should have opened fire over the Scarborough Shoal dispute. But it is a sad day when Palau (population 20,000) is more assertive in standing up to Chinese aggression than the United States of America. The nations of Asia are watching carefully and making their calculations accordingly. In their eyes, the U.S. just became a less reliable friend.

This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here (Subscription required).

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