Friday, July 10, 2015

China, Philippines and Tension in the South China Sea

[News articles on the tension in the South China Sea, between China and the Philippines.]

Islanders at centre of sea dispute stare down China’s military might


MANILA — On a clear night, the Filipinos who live on Pagasa Island — a speck in the vast South China Sea — can see the floodlights from giant Chinese cranes working around the clock, dredging sand to build on a nearby reef.

Life on the atoll with its clutch of buildings was for decades leisurely and quiet, with sporadic Internet access and not much to do but fish and stroll on the beach. Now, its 120-odd residents find themselves on the doorstep of a row over territory that has fed tension among some of the world’s biggest powers. Change has come to Pagasa in the constant presence of China.

More than 820km from the Philippine capital, and defended by a platoon of soldiers with limited weapons, the island is a gateway to reefs claimed and occupied by China. Separated from the nearest big Philippine island by a 36-hour boat ride in rough seas, it relies on ad hoc military flights and a quarterly visit from a resupply ship that has to dodge Chinese vessels to dock.

“We’ve become used to the sight of big Chinese ships around Pagasa,” said Ms Nelly Dalabajan, a 28-year-old nurse who went to Pagasa in February for a four-month job rotation. “Seeing 30 ships and boats at one time is normal. We’re worried about the Chinese driving us out.”

As China and other South China Sea claimant states bicker, the waters that are a conduit for energy supplies to Asia and carry about half the world’s merchant tonnage — US$5.3 trillion (S$7.2 trillion) in goods each year — are increasingly tense. Amid the posturing, with China warning the US military away from reclaimed reefs and the US patrolling the area, the question is: Where does this end?

Real risk of mishap

For the people who live and work in the waters the risk of a mishap is real, and China, the Philippines’ second-biggest trading partner, is seen as unstoppable despite the efforts of other countries’ militaries. With a string of reefs on which to base its military it will have the potential to better control shipping lanes, fishing grounds and unproven energy reserves, and cause environmental damage to a sea that is famous for its pristine diving waters.

China has accelerated its reclamation, dumping sand to build airstrips on tiny rocks that may otherwise be submerged at high tide. It has built 600ha of a total of 800ha of land since December. Whatever the legal reality, China is building a case that these are now islands with structures, implying ownership.

China argues the reefs are within its sovereign terrain, and construction is needed to ensure navigational safety. It has said the reefs will be used for military as well as civilian purposes such as marine scientific research.

“China’s lawful, justified and reasonable construction on some garrisoned Nansha islands and reefs is well within China’s sovereignty,” Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said on July 3, using China’s name for the disputed Spratlys.

China’s ships often nose close to Pagasa, sitting offshore for days within view of the island. Its coastguard boats chase Philippine fishermen. Fishing boats that are caught may have a near-empty hold, raising doubts among locals they are just there for the catch. And at night there is the winking of lights from the reefs.

“The big cranes have added to our worries,” said Mr Jorge Misajon, the 53-year-old administrator of the Kalayaan municipality that takes in Pagasa. “Our contingency plan is no longer confined to the evacuation of civilians. We’re training people to defend the island.”

Pagasa falls within the Spratly chain, contested in part by Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei, some of whom also build on reefs and islands. China’s claim covers roughly 80 per cent of the South China Sea, including islands further north known as the Paracels. The Philippines is arguing its case against China’s claims at a United Nations tribunal.

China has put at least three buoys near the disputed Reed Bank about 280km northeast of Pagasa, Philippine Congressman Francisco Acedillo, a member of the House of Representatives foreign affairs committee, said by phone. “My hunch is they’re surveying for oil and natural gas,” said Mr Acedillo, a former air force pilot.

For the residents of Pagasa, part of the anxiety stems from their sheer isolation. While islanders get free food and housing to stay on the 37.2ha isle, when Ms Dalabajan arrived there was no Philippine mobile phone service. Wireless Internet is shared between the civilian and military population, with times allocated for each group.

Changes due to tension

The tensions have brought changes to the relationship between fishermen and businessmen in the area.

Chinese traders and fishermen used to visit Pagasa to hawk their goods or seek shelter in bad weather, according to Mr Misajon. In recent years a Chinese ship towed a Philippine fishing boat out of the Second Thomas Shoal while it was seeking shelter from a storm, and Chinese fishermen were caught illegally catching clams on the Pagasa shore, he said.

For Kalayaan municipality officer Joey Rabanal, 28, the boat trip between Pagasa and the nearest city, Palawan’s capital of Puerto Princesa, brings the risk of Chinese encounters. His last major run-in was about a year ago.

Around 7 on a stormy night, Mr Rabanal said a 21m fishing boat he had hired was blocked by a Chinese coastguard ship five times its size as it headed for Pagasa. The vessel sat for about an hour, shining floodlights and sounding a horn. The Filipino captain steered into shallower waters where the Chinese ship could not follow. The coastguard boat stayed nearby, and was later joined by another vessel.

“In the morning, we could see them circling the reef like sharks looking for something to eat for breakfast,” said Mr Rabanal. “Nobody would know if they do something, they have bigger guns. Anything is possible, especially when it’s the middle of the ocean.”

The Philippine navy is no match for China, said Mr Misajon, echoing the locals, fishermen and government officials interviewed by Bloomberg. Chinese forces have tried many times to block boats bringing food and building supplies to Pagasa, he said.

While the US and Japan each conducted military drills with the Philippines off the coast of Palawan in June, the soldiers from Pagasa weren’t involved. The navy should send those who have trained with foreign forces to the island, said Mr Misajon.

The Philippines needs about 990 billion pesos (S$29.72 billion) up to 2028 to build a “minimum credible defence posture,” armed forces spokesman Brigadier-General Joselito Kakilala said by phone.

Tensions at sea are shadowed by the unease felt by fishermen in the coastal village of Macarascas near Ulugan Bay, a picturesque cove 160km from the Spratlys that the Philippine military is transforming into a naval base.

The 1,500 residents of Macarascas are not renovating their homes in case they are relocated to give way to the expanded base, says resident Jonalyn Martinez. Wooden stilts holding up the 37-year-old’s home among the mangrove trees are rotting, and the tin roof does not keep water out when it rains.

“It’s painful because we’ve lived here all our lives,” said 35-year-old fisherman Ronald Colendres. For Colendres, who earns as little as 500 pesos a day, moving away would leave him and his family without a source of income.

Chinese activities in the waters are causing environmental damage to Palawan and its dredging may impact fish larvae. The destruction of coral reef systems could lead to economic losses of about US$280 million each year to coastal states, the Philippine foreign affairs department said in June.

There has been a rise in Chinese poachers, who make up about 60 per cent of fishermen caught hunting marine life including endangered turtles, according to the Palawan Council for Sustainable Development.

“They say that West Philippine Sea is China Sea, so they can fish anytime there, that’s what emboldens them,” said Ms Adelina Benavente-Villena, chief of staff at the council, who learned Chinese to help her nab poachers.

“The threat is not only the invasion or possible use of force, but the environmental security.”


Court begins hearing Philippines, China dispute over South China Sea


AMSTERDAM - The Philippines argued at a closed hearing on Tuesday that an international court should intervene in its dispute with China over the right to exploit natural resources and fish in the South China Sea.

Although China has declined to participate, the case at the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague is being closely watched by Asian governments and Washington, given rising regional tensions as Chinese naval power grows.

A panel of five judges will hear arguments this week and decide whether the treaty-based court has jurisdiction.

Manila filed suit at the court in 2013, seeking to enforce its right to exploit waters in a 200-nautical mile "exclusive economic zone" off its coast, as defined under the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea.

The Philippines argues that the arbitration court is the correct venue for resolving disputes covered by the treaty, which both countries have signed.

"The Philippines believes the court has jurisdiction over all the claims it has made," said lawyer Paul Reichler, representing the Philippines.

He said he was confident the court would ultimately rule in the Philippines' favor.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said China did not accept the court's jurisdiction and would not participate.

"China opposes any form of arbitration process proposed and promoted by the Philippines," Hua told a daily news briefing in Beijing on Tuesday.

In a position paper in December, China argued the dispute was not covered by the treaty because it was ultimately a matter of sovereignty, not exploitation rights.

China claims most of the South China Sea. The Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei claim overlapping parts of the strategic waterway.

While the hearings are closed to the public, the court said in a statement it had allowed small delegations from Vietnam, Malaysia, Japan, Indonesia and Thailand to observe proceedings after getting requests from those countries.

After the Philippines, the country most at odds with Beijing over the South China Sea is Vietnam. Japan is also involved in a bitter dispute with China over uninhabited islands in the East China Sea.

Manila says China is unfairly preventing it from accessing reefs and shoals that are under its dominion in the South China Sea.

Reichler said the case could continue even if China declined to participate. The court's rulings are binding, although it has no power to enforce them and countries have ignored them in the past.

Reichler declined to discuss the details of the Philippines' arguments on Tuesday.

Court legal counsel Judith Levine said the court would not comment on the proceedings.

Reichler said he expected a decision on jurisdiction within 90 days. A ruling on the merits of the case could take years.


China to snub arbitration hearing on feud with Philippines


MANILA — The Chinese ambassador says Beijing has stood pat in its decision to reject international arbitration to resolve a disagreement with the Philippines over the South China Sea.

An international tribunal in The Hague will start formal hearings tomorrow (July 7) to address China’s contention that the five-member arbitration body does not have authority to assume jurisdiction over Manila’s complaint against Beijing.

Ambassador Zhao Jianhua told reporters today that Beijing would stick to its decision not to participate in arbitration and instead renewed China’s offer to resolve the conflict through one-on one-negotiation with the Philippines.

In its complaint, the Philippines has asked the tribunal to declare China’s claims to much of the South China Sea as invalid under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. AP

China angered by new U.S. military strategy report


BEIJING - China's Foreign Ministry expressed anger on Friday after the Pentagon's updated National Military Strategy slammed Chinese claims in the South China Sea as aggressive and inconsistent with international law.

China has become increasingly assertive in the South China Sea, building artificial islands in areas where the Philippines and other countries have rival claims, sparking alarm regionally and in Washington.

"China's actions are adding tension to the Asia-Pacific region," says the paper, released this week in the first update of the strategy since 2011, making specific reference to China's "aggressive land reclamation efforts" in the South China Sea.

Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said the United States was pushing unfounded exaggerations.

"We express dissatisfaction and opposition towards the U.S. side's report's irrational exaggerations of China's threat," she told a daily news briefing.

"We have already clearly explained our stance on the issue of construction on islands and reefs in the South China Sea several times," Hua added.

"We believe that the U.S. should abandon their Cold War mentality."

China claims most of the potentially energy-rich South China Sea, through which $5 trillion in ship-borne trade passes every year. The Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, and Taiwan also have overlapping claims.


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