Tensions escalate in South China Sea

Published on
May 30, 2012

China’s annual two-month ban on fishing in the South China Sea has taken on special significance this year — the Philippines and Vietnam have both said they don’t recognize the ban since it extends to their territorial waters.

China, meanwhile, has said the moratorium is a chance for peace in a simmering dispute with Manila over the Scarborough Reef (known as the Huangyu Islands in China), a group of islands that Beijing claims even though Manila disputes it.

Filipino workers in Beijing have been subjected to police checks and Chinese tour groups have cancelled trips to the country. Predictably, Chinese quarantine authorities have commenced strict inspections of Filipino fruit, popular even in northern Chinese cities in the off-season.

The quarantine clamp-down is a familiar retaliatory tactic and mirrors similar inspections on Norwegian salmon after Norway’s Nobel Institute awarded last year’s Nobel peace prize to a Chinese dissident. 

However, seafood exports from the Philippines to China have not been noticeably hurt, according to Richtofen Chen, whose EnAsia trading house keeps an office in Manila and the southerly Chinese port city of Xiamen (the two cities are only two hours flying distance apart). Chen said his firm has focused on importing Chinese tilapia and squid to the Philippines, though it had previously sourced seafood for Chinese buyers. Better English skills have given firms such as Chen’s a niche in seafood hubs like Xiamen.

The dispute was stirred up late this spring when images of Chinese fishermen detained by Filipino soldiers were reprinted countless times and shown on national TV. Chinese media claim the men were detained bare-chested for two hours under the hot sun, a claim repeated by Peng Zhanghua, director general of ocean affairs at China’s foreign ministry.

While China has claimed that it is protecting its fishermen’s access to Huangyan (authorities on southerly Hainan island claim fishermen from Tanmen, a port on the island, have been fishing the island zone every spring for decades), the conflict is also being driven by a thirst for energy. The prospect of bountiful under-sea oil reserves has focused attention on the South China Sea islands, while China has responded by increasing its fishery presence as well as patrols by fishery and naval authorities.

Trade retaliation against Filipino goods is nonetheless a worrying sign of Chinese action in future political-themed disputes, particularly given that China also disputes waters claimed by Japan, Korea and Malaysia.

The Global Times taunted Filipino foreign minister Albert Del Rosario, who earlier said the Philippines does not recognize the fishing ban. “The Philippines does not recognize the fishing ban since this is an encroachment of its Exclusive Economic Zone. The Philippines will exercise its legitimate and exclusive rights within its EEZ in accordance with UNCLOS,” Del Rosario told Filipino media.

A recent report published by the International Crisis Group pointed to a series of factors contributing to the South China Sea dispute. One is the multiplicity of Chinese actors (11 government agencies, military and fishing authorities), which means there’s no single Chinese official authority. Likewise, growth-obsessed provincial governments, particularly in Hainan, are keen to extract economic value, in fishing and tourism, from the islands.

The Bureau of Fisheries Administration of the agriculture ministry runs the China Fisheries Law Enforcement Command (CFLEC), one of the two largest law enforcement agencies overseeing China’s claimed maritime territory. The South China Sea Region Fisheries Administration Bureau commands the South China Sea Fisheries Law Enforcement Command that has been involved in disputes with Vietnamese and Philippine vessels.

Over the past 10 years, the CFLEC has increased its fleet of patrol vessels, including decommissioned national navy vessels, allowing it better range and all-weather patrols. The separate State Oceanic Administration, meanwhile, commands the China Marine Surveillance, a law enforcement agency tasked with defending China’s claimed waters. This agency, along with the CFLEC, has vessels patrolling in the Scarborough Reef/Huangyu Islands zone.

It’s worth noting that the campaign for the Huangyu/Scarborough islands as well as a clamp-down on “three bad foreigners” in China have both curiously happened at a time when government was beginning to feel political heat over a scandal involving top leader Bo Xilai, which drew attention to the enormous wealth of top Chinese Communist Party families.

However, nationalism-inspired Chinese boycotts typically end up hurting local commercial concerns as much as any foreign corporations. Just as an anti-Japanese rant saw Chinese-owned sushi bars trashed in Beijing in 2006, a Weibo (Chinese Twitter-like microblog service) campaign targeting TLC Beatrice has hurt the company’s Chinese-owned operations.

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