A Philippine gunboat harassed 12 Chinese fishing boats that were taking refuge from harsh weather in a lagoon near China's Huangyan Island last month, triggering the current standoff between China and the Philippines.
The Philippines never disputed China's sovereignty over the island until 1997, and a 1978 map sanctioned by the Philippines' National Mapping and Resource Information Authority placed Huangyan Island outside the Philippines' territorial limits. However, in May 1997, the Philippine navy intercepted two vessels carrying a group of amateur radio enthusiasts from China, Japan and the United States, who had planned an expedition to Huangyan Island. Before long, a group of Philippine congressmen sailed to the island and posed for photos under a Philippine flag, and later the Philippines navy arrested 21 Chinese fishermen near the island and filed an illegal entry charge against them.
Manila bases its claim on proximity and insists that the island is within its exclusive economic zone. The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea allows a coastal state to claim a 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone, but the state has no right to change the ownership of territory by doing so.
China is the first country to name Huangyan Island and incorporate it into its territory and exercise jurisdiction over it. In 1935, the then Chinese government included the island with the name Scarborough Shoal as part of the Zhongsha Islands into Chinese territory. In 1947, the government announced a new list of South China Sea islands, in which Scarborough Shoal was also included and renamed as Democratic Reef, and in 1983, China released a list of some South China Sea islands and began to use Huangyan Island as the island's standard name.
While China has legal foundations for its sovereignty over Huangyan Island, the Philippines' claim that Huangyan Island is within its exclusive economic zone lacks legal basis. Back in 1997, Judge Eliodoro Ubiadas of the regional trial court of Olongapo in Zambales province dismissed the illegal entry charges filed against the Chinese fishermen, invoking a provision in the Presidential Decree No 1599, a law issued in 1978 to establish an exclusive economic zone of the Philippines. The provision stipulated that even though the Philippines' exclusive economic zone extends to a distance of 200 nautical miles beyond and from the baseline, provided that where the outer limits of the zone as thus determined overlap that of an adjacent or neighboring state, the common boundaries shall be determined by agreement with the state concerned. The judge thus ruled that the accused "were apprehended in a place over which there is yet no agreement between the Chinese and the Philippine governments" and thus there is no legal basis to conclude that "the accused entered Philippine territory illegally".
Although the bilateral agreement to resolve the issue diplomatically makes war unlikely, the Philippines continues to escalate tensions. For instance, the Philippines has declared that it will unilaterally bring the dispute to the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea, and it has confirmed its plans to open an elementary school on Zhongye Island, which belongs to China's Nansha Islands in the South China Sea.
In this way the Philippines is attempting to turn its claimed sovereignty over Huangyan Island into reality and intensify nationalistic sentiments as a means of re-channeling dissatisfaction with domestic problems. The Philippines is also trying to play off the members of the Association of the Southeast Asian Nations against China.
The ongoing standoff might leave China facing some disconcerting questions about its foreign policy and its ability to defend its interests in the South China Sea, but it also offers an opportunity for Beijing to gain the upper hand, as the ongoing crisis initiated by the Philippines serves as a good chance for China to enforce its jurisdiction over the island.
The confrontation is actually to China's advantage, as Beijing is better equipped than the Philippines, and once the Philippines withdraws its ships, China should thereafter block entry to the lagoon and better excise its jurisdiction over the island.
Last but not the least, China should send construction teams and equipment to the island and speed up the building of shelters for fishermen, lighthouses and military outposts. Once these are established, military units can be stationed on the island to further safeguard the country's sovereignty and maritime interests in the area.
The author is a professor at the Center for Southeast Asia Studies, Xiamen University.