Philippines and China Headed for a Showdown at Scarborough Shoal (Update)

It has only been a couple of weeks since this happened as a Philippine patrol boat approached Scarborough Shoal.

Now we seem to be heading for an even larger confrontation in the same area. A flotilla of 100 small fishing boats from the Philippines is making its way to Scarborough Shoal as part of an organized effort called Atin Ito which is Tagalog for “This is ours.” Their plan is to navigate to Scarborough Shoal as a kind of freedom of navigation protest at sea and then deploy some buoys with the phrase Atin Ito on them. 

As you can see, most of these boats are quite small.

China is responding by sending an even larger force of Coast Guard ships and what are known as maritime militia, i.e. unmarked “fishing boats” which are actually under the control of the Chinese military.

The Filipino group organizing the flotilla of about 100 small fishing boats, led by five slightly bigger ones, said it wanted to assert the Philippines’ claims to Scarborough Shoal, an atoll controlled by Beijing that is closer to Manila.

But even before the motley Philippine fleet set out on Wednesday morning, China deployed a formidable contingent of much bigger government-run ships to the area, an intimidating escalation of its frequent assertions of control over vast expanses of sea far from its mainland.

“What we’re seeing this time, I would say, is definitely of another order,” said Ray Powell, the director of SeaLight, a group that monitors the South China Sea. “I think that the China Coast Guard is concerned that they’re going to try to sort of get too close, and so they’re sending an overwhelming force.”

The Philippines has sent three Coast Guard ships and a plane along to monitor this protest and the Chinese Coast Guard is already tracking the flotilla.

As I’ve described before, all of this has already been adjudicated in an international court but China refused to patriciate in the process and has ignored the outcome.

China effectively seized Scarborough Shoal, a triangle-shaped atoll with a vast fishing lagoon ringed by mostly submerged coral outcrops, by surrounding it with its coast guard ships after a tense 2012 standoff with Philippine government ships.

Angered by China’s action, the Philippine government brought the territorial disputes to international arbitration in 2013 and largely won, with a tribunal in The Hague ruling three years later that China’s expansive claims based on historical grounds in the busy seaway were invalid under the 1982 U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea.

The ruling declared Scarborough Shoal a traditional fishing area for Chinese, Filipino and Vietnamese fishermen. In the past, fishermen have anchored in the shoal to avoid large waves in the high seas in stormy weather.

China refused to participate in the arbitration, rejected the outcome and continues to defy it.

In essence, China’s approach to the South China Sea is might makes right and this little flotilla of boats is challenging that. It’s setting up a kind of David vs. Goliath conflict at sea. China is already issuing warnings that it plans to defend its rights to the shoal.

“If the Philippine side abuses China’s good will and violates China’s territorial sovereignty and jurisdiction, China will defends its rights and take countermeasures in accordance with the law,” Wang Wenbin, a spokesman for the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said at a news conference in Beijing. “The responsibility and consequences will entirely rest with the Philippine side.”

The Atin Ito flotilla should arrive near the shoal sometime Thursday morning. It’s already early Thursday morning in the area as I write this so it may only be a few more hours before some kind of showdown happens.

There’s really no telling how far China will be willing to go with civilians and journalists watching.

Update: A map showing all the ships involved in this.

Also, came across this fascinating piece of Chinese state TV propaganda trying to connect Atin Ito to the US. If you scroll through to the end of this they have a guest on from Beijing whose face is put up next to a map of China that includes a) Taiwan as part of China and b) the nine-dashed line showing that all of the South China Sea belongs to China. They do this even as they’re talking about how China is being unfairly characterized as aggressive. It’s surreal.

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