2012 South China Sea Developments
On February 27, 2012, the Philippine Secretary of Energy announced plans to develop hydrocarbon 15 blocks in the Reed Bank area, which forms part of the continental shelf of the Philippine’s Palawan Island. This area is, however, also within China’s 9-dashed line, which resulted in agitation between the two countries. The next incident occurred about a month later when, in the same disputed waters, the Philippine Navy seized a Chinese fishing vessel and 35 wooden, motorized dinghies it was towing under a law that authorizes the Philippine Navy to seize foreign vessels engaged in illegal fishing in Philippine waters. The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs responded that these waters have been China’s "traditional fishing grounds for generations" and reiterated that “China has indisputable sovereignty" over these islands and water.
On 11-12 April 2012, it was reported that a Philippine warship, the BRP Gregorio Del Pilar (which had only arrived in the Philippines in August 2011), two Chinese government ships (reported to have been surveillance vessels), and a number of Chinese fishing boats had become engaged in a standoff in area of the Scarborough Shoal. The Philippines claimed that the Chinese fishermen, spotted by maritime patrol aircraft first on 8 April 2012, were operating inside their exclusive economic zone and were catching sealife listed as endangered by the Philippines. The Philippines argued that the area was well within the 370 kilometer exclusive economic zone designated by international law. China on the other hand claimed sovereignty over practically the entire South China Sea, including the contested area. Philippine authorities aboard the BRP Gregorio Del Pilar had been blocked by the Chinese government vessels in their subsequent attempts to arrest the Chinese fishermen.
Late on 12 April 2012, the BRP Gregorio Del Pilar was relieved by the BRP Edsa. On 19 April 2012, the Chinese deployed the Yuzheng 310, the most advanced fisheries patrol vessel operated by Chinese authorities, to join the standoff with the Philippines. Chinese fishermen were reported to have continued to operate in the area under the protection of the larger Chinese ships, though some of the fishing boats involved in the inciting incident had returned to their port on Hainan Island.
On 23 April 2012, the Chinese announced that the Yuzheng 310 and one of the two surveillance ships (hull number 084) had departed the disputed Scarborough Shoal. The other surveillance ship would remain in the area in a "law enforcement" capacity. The Philippines also announced that at least one Coast Guard vessel would remain in the area.
On 30 April 2012, it was reported that Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario had broken off talks with the Chinese Ambassador to his country, Ma Keqing, on April 25. Secretary del Rosario broke off talks because of what was described by Philippine officials as "incomplete, inaccurate, and misleading" information sent to Beijing by Ma regarding the standoff in area of the Scarborough Shoal that had begun earlier in April 2012. Ma reportedly told Beijing that the Philippines had violated an agreement to withdraw its ships from the disputed waters. Chinese officials denied the accusations.
In a press conference in Malacanang on 3 May 2012, Presidential Spokesman Edwin Lacierda said it is wrong to assume that the Philippines will end up losing the shoal. Insisting the country’s sovereign rights over the Panatag Shoal, Lacierda said the Aquino government wouldn’t allow the Chinese to put up garrisons there as what they did in Mischief Reef.
As the standoff continued, China identified two areas where economic pain could be inflicted on the Philippines: (1) A halting of Chinese tourists to the Philippines; and (2) a halting of Philippines’ banana imports to China. According to the Philippines Department of Tourism, China represented the fourth largest source of tourists to the Philippines. During the first three months of 2012, 96,000 tourists had visited the Philippines — a 78% increase over the same period during 2011. As a result of the standoff, China issued a travel warning to tourists planning to travel to the Philippines. Clearly, the stoppage of Chinese tourists imposed severe economic pain on the Philippines tourism industry. Moreover, it is widely known that China had recently pledged to invest billions of dollars in the Philippines tourism industry—a pledge that was held in the balance as the two nations starred each other down at Scarborough Reef.
More damaging, China began to deny entry to Philippine bananas that reached Chinese ports claiming that they were bug infested. By mid-May, Philippine fruit exporters had incurred losses of around $33.6 million; in recent years, the country has exported about $380 million in bananas.44 The Financial Times reported that up to 200,000 banana farmers and ancillary workers could lose their jobs if China stopped importing Philippine bananas.
Chinese officials ramped up warnings about the territorial dispute, with state-backed newspapers warning of "small-scale war" if the Philippines does not back off. Vice Foreign Minister Fu Ying said on 8 May 2012 that China was not optimistic about the situation concerning Huangyan Island, and the country is fully prepared to respond to anything the Philippine side does to escalate the situation.
As of 12 May 2012, a Philippines Coast Guard vessel continued to face off with 2 Chinese ships. The standoff had begun in April 2012 when China sent 2 maritime surveillance ships to prevent the Philippines from arresting Chinese fishermen off Panatag Shoal / Huangyan Island / Scarborough Shoal. In a punitive action by the Chinese government, 1,200 containers of bananas from the Philippines were held in customs because of what authorities say are "quarantine concerns".
The Philippines said 11 May 2012 the United States had pledged to protect it from attacks in the West Philippine Sea (also known as South China Sea), a day after China issued a warning over a territorial row in the waters. Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin said he had received the assurances during talks in Washington. Gazmin said US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta stressed they were not taking sides in the dispute, but they assured the Philippines the United States would honor a 1951 mutual defense treaty. “It includes armed attack… (on) island territories in the Paci?c (region)," Gazmin said, citing conditions for the allies coming to each other’s aid.
On 15 May 2012, it was reported that China had announced a ban on fishing in the area of the Panatag Shoal / Huangyan Island / Scarborough Shoal between 16 May and 1 August 2012. The Philippines responded by announcing plans for its own ban. Though the reasoning for the bans officially had to do with reducing over-fishing in the area and allowing the rich fishing grounds to replenish themselves, the actions were seen as reducing tensions in the continued dispute.
On 24 May 2012, China was reported to have admitted to sending additional ships to the disputed area of the Panatag Shoal / Huangyan Island / Scarborough Shoal. Chinese authorities accused the Philippines of being "insincere" in their efforts to end the 2 month old stand off, citing unspecified provocative actions. The Chinese ships were said to be government vessels. Their mission in the area was to conduct maritime surveillance and provide some guarantee to Chinese fishing boats operating in the disputed area. In spite of a previously announced temporary ban on fishing in the area, the Chinese government also acknowledged the presence of at least 20 Chinese fishing boats. It was unclear whether or not these fishing boats were operating with the formal consent of the Chinese government.
On 04 June 2012 the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) said some vessels deployed in a standoff at the disputed Panatag Shoal (Scarborough) had been withdrawn,, with the government hoping this will ease tensions between the Philippines and China. Following an announcement by the DFA that "two Chinese maritime vessels and our BFAR (Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources) vessel are no longer in the lagoon," Presidential Spokesman Edwin Lacierda said in a briefing that the pullout was a "way forward."
On 8 June 2012, Philippine President Benigno Aquino met with US President Obama and reportedly pressured for assurances that the US would be prepared and willing to assist the Philippines in the event of further escalation of the crisis in the South China Sea. The United States response was that it took no position on South China Sea rivalries, but encouraged countries in the area, including rival claimants, to resolve disputes through a "code of conduct" being developed with China's participation.
The Pillipines was ready to redeploy ships to counter the possible presence of foreign vessels, President Benigno S. C. Aquino III said 19 June 2012. "The guidelines are very clear, if there are foreign-owned vessels in our waters, we send back our ships… That will be determined by the overflight of our aircraft," he said. The Palace said the government was set to reevaluate the redeployment of ships in Scarborough Shoal.
Chinese and Phillipine ships were reportedly withdrawn with the threat of typhoon Butchoy (international name: Guchol). Tropical Storm Guchol intensified into a typhoon 14 June 2012. Typhoon Guchol (Butchoy) spawned alerts in the Philippines as it was forecast to skirt the eastern part of Luzon 15 June 2012. Tropical Storm Talim formed in the South China Sea 18 June 2012, just south of Hainan Island, China. Talim is moving northeast towards the Strait of Taiwan. The territorial tensions between the Philippines and China have affected trade and boosted nationalistic rhetoric. Fishermen on both sides say their governments need to come to an agreement so they can all make a living. A fishing ban was imposed in the area by Manila and Beijing in May 2012 in a bid to address worsening marine resource conditions.
At least six Chinese government-controlled vessels were still in Scarborough Shoal as of 20 June 2012 despite the prevailing bad weather that had resulted in the pull-out of Philippine ships. There were three Chinese maritime surveillance vessels (MCS) and three fishery law enforcement command (FLEC) ships in Panatag Shoal. The DFA said the Philippines and China have only agreed to withdraw their respective vessels “from the lagoon of the disputed Scarborough Shoal" and not the entire area. China’s foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei urged Philippine officials to refrain from making remarks meant to influence public opinion on the month-old standoff at Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal.
On 21 June 2012 China set up a new “prefecture level" city called Sansha to administer three disputed islands in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea). Xisha (Paracels), Zhongsha (Macclesfield bank), and Nansha (Spratlys) islands were collectively elevated to prefecture status under Sansha city from their previous county-level status. Sansha means “city of three sands" in Chinese. The State Council approved the establishment of Sansha, with its seat of government on Yongxing Island [Woody Island], which is part of the Paracels.
Vietnam’s Law of the Sea was adopted by 495 out of 496 National Assembly (NA) deputies on 21 June 2012, accounting for 99.8 percent of the vote. Foreign Ministry spokesman Luong Thanh Nghi rejected China’s accusations of Vietnam’s legitimate act as unreasonable. “Now as before, Vietnam advocates to settle the differences and disputes over the East Sea by peaceful means and on the basis of international laws, especially the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the East Sea (DOC)", the official said.
The dispute emerged as the U.S. Navy's research vessel, Roger Revelle, docked at Tien Sa Port in Vietnam's central Da Nang city on 22 June 2012, beginning its eight-day visit trip to the city. Roger Revelle belongs to the U.S. Navy and is run by the Scripps Oceanic Institute of the University of California in San Diego.
The National People's Congress (NPC), China's top legislature, on 22 June 2012 urged Vietnam to correct an erroneous maritime law it passed the previous day. The Foreign Affairs Committee of the NPC expressed its position concerning the recent passing of the Vietnamese Law of the Sea in a letter to the Committee on Foreign Affairs of the Vietnamese National Assembly.
At least 28 Chinese vessels and boats remained in and around the lagoon of Scarborough Shoal as of 26 June 2012, contrary to earlier reports that China had pulled out all its vessels. Aerial surveillance conducted by Philippine Navy aircraft spotted six Chinese fishing vessels and 17 dinghies inside the lagoon. - Armed Forces chief Gen. Jessie Dellosa said 03 July 2012 it would be up to the national government whether to redeploy Philippine vessels to the hotly-contested Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal.
Bilateral diplomacy resulted in what appeared to be an agreement for both sides to withdraw and for the situation to return to the status quo ante. The Philippines complied, removing their few government and civilian vessels from the reef. The Chinese did not. In fact, after the Philippine ships departed the Chinese placed a physical barrier across the reef’s narrow entrance and posted a Chinese law enforcement vessel to prevent any Philippine attempts to return. The Philippines was outmaneuvered at Scarborough Reef and lost access to the resources in its sheltered harbor and lost the ability to protect the reef’s fragile ecosystem. Although overt tensions between China and the Philippines subsided by year’s end, both sides continued to claim jurisdiction over the reef. Chinese law enforcement vessels maintained an almost continuous presence ever since.
The Hindu reported June 14, 2012 that " When four Indian naval ships left the Philippines earlier this month headed for South Korea, they received an unexpected message. “Welcome to the South China Sea, Foxtrot-47," buzzed a People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) frigate to the INS Shivalik (F47). For the next 12 hours, the Chinese warship would provide an unscheduled escort to the four Indian vessels. The PLAN frigate was aware that the four ships were also going to visit Shanghai later in the month during their month-long tour; yet that they insisted on providing an escort through what India and other countries view as international waters underscored for officials how Beijing increasingly views one of the world's most important waterways."
In November 2012, China also added a map which contained the nine-dash line to all of its new passports. This action elicited negative responses from other nations in the Asia-Pacific region. China’s increased reference in official government materials to the nine-dash line is a source of concern to its neighbors and other nations because, at a minimum, it creates an impression that China is not merely claiming all the land features within the nine-dash line, but it may also be claiming a special sovereign status of all the water and the sea-bed contained therein.
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