Friday, June 1, 2012

Standing up to Goliath

All of us must have read the famous story from the Bible of the battle between a young lad named David and a mighty warrior Goliath. In this story, David armed with just a sling shot and 5 smooth stones manages to defeat a giant warrior Goliath in full armour. There is a famous painting of the battle scene painted by Osmar Schindler (circa 1888) showing David standing up against the mighty Goliath and his jeering army. I am very much reminded of this battle scene after reading about the present stand off between China and tiny archipelago state of Philippines.

Philippines, whose most powerful naval ship is a destroyer from second world war vintage, has simply refused to cave in to Chinese demands to vacate an atoll in South China Sea. This country no doubt has guts. Even the former foreign minister of Philippines has described this stand off as between an elephant and an ant. I think that it would be worth while to go in the history of this dispute and find out the realities.

The bone of contention in the dispute between China and other nations about some small islands in South China sea, arises from a fabulous claim made by China that all South China Sea belongs to it. To justify this claim, Chinese refer to some old obscure map prepared during Han Dynasty rule (1st Century CE) . Chinese claim that this map shows all of South China Sea as Chinese territory. This claim is obviously not acceptable for other countries in the region like Vietnam and Philippines. This dispute mainly in dormant state till then, took a turn for the worst about 8 years back, when presence of Hydrocarbons was detected in the surrounding seas.
Spartley islands are a group of more than 750 reefs, islets, atolls, cays and islands. In all, there are more than 30000 islands and reefs there, with just 4 sq. Km land area in 425000 sq. Km area of sea. There are no native people staying on the islands but the seas around the islands are rich in fish and possible reserves of oil and gas. This archipelago is located about 200 miles west of Philippine island of Palawan, 300 miles north west of Malaysian state of Sabah and about 400 miles east of Vietnam. From nearest Chinese coastline of Hainan island it is as far away as 700 miles. Only about 45 islands are occupied by small numbers of military personnel from Vietnam, China, the Republic of China (Taiwan), Malaysia and the Philippines. Brunei also claims just one area of small islands. 

The dispute between China and Philippines began nearly 20 years ago when a reef known as of Mischief Reef” was seized by China from Philippines. Since then, many attempts to settle the issue have failed due to adamant position taken by China.

In 1998 Philippines made a formal protest to China about construction activity on Spartley islands and also presence of Chinese naval vassals there. However an agreement was reached between them in November 1998 about reducing tension in Spartleys and utilizing the natural resources jointly. However no further agreements could be made. There was widespread discontent in Philippines over Chinese actions; However the then president of Philippines Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo was decidedly soft on Chinese.

In 2004 Philippines entered into an agreement with China for a Joint Marine Seismic Undertaking. When it was established that Hydrocarbons presence is a possibility near Spartley islands, Chinese suddenly became active and started claiming that area belongs to China.

In July 2011, when administration of President Benigno Aquino, who is more inclined towards Americans, was in place in Philippines, a group of Philippine parliamentarians flew to Pagasa island, sang national anthem and declared it Philippine territory. Pagasa island is located about 300 miles east of Palawan and has an airstrip and a small Philippine military base. Chinese were riled and made a big noise claiming that China had indispensable sovereignty over the island.

In March 2012, Philippines announced that it would start awarding oil exploration contracts in areas near Phillipines coast. Two blocks, just 49 miles off coast of Palawan (Towards Spartley islands) were included in the contracts. Chinese media as expected reacted very angrily to this. Philippines followed up this announcement with a military exercise on Palawan island itself, obviously telling the Chinese that they have full support of Uncle Sam.

In subsequent months, the barbs between Chinese and Philippians have reached a very high pitch. The center of dispute is now an area covering about 150 Sq. Miles and consisting of rocks, reefs and small islands and is known as Scarborough Shoal by the Philippines and Huangyan Island by China. This area is about 100 miles east of Palawak coast and more than 500 miles away from China. For last one month (April-May 2012) there has been a stand off between Chinese and Philippine fishing boats and coastguard near the outcrops. Recently, in a provocative act, a Chinese journalist was shown planting a flag on one of the rocks, on Chinese TV. Global Times, a paper produced by Communist Party in China has commented that "The Philippines needs to be taught a lesson for its aggressive nationalism. For China, the standoff over Huangyan Island is a matter of sovereignty. And now Manila needs to be defeated in this area... If the standoff escalates into a military clash, the international community should not be completely surprised".

To counter the Chinease threats, The president of the Philippines has tweeted a statement which makes it clear that the Philippines believes that America will help protect it from any Chinese aggression.
Philippines also has asked China to settle the issue at the International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea (ITLOS).

Chinese however are continuing to make noises and also put commercial pressure on militarily weak Philippines. China’s Deputy Foreign Minister Fu Ying claims that the Scarborough Shoals are theirs and that it is the Philippines who are intruding into Chinese territory. Chinese authorities have warned its citizens against travelling to the Philippines and as a result, tour operators and tourists have avoided visiting the South East Asian nation for their holidays. China also has tightened inspections of fruit imports from Philippines.

It is very doubtful whether Chinese would take actual military action against Philippines in this case, as their case according to International law is very weak. Perhaps they are trying to measure the degree of American response in a test case. It also could be a way to divert attention of the people from the internal and domestic issues. Pakistan had tried this trick for many decades by raising Kashmir issue whenever there had been a domestic crisis.
However the tough posture adopted by Philippines and it's president must be appreciated. It is not easy for a small country to safeguard it's interests, when dealing with a much more powerful country. For India there is a lesson to be learnt from this episode, about dealing with China. I hope that the lesson would be learnt.

1 June 2012