A marine sanctuary proposed by the Philippine president inside a contested South China Sea shoal risks upsetting rival claimant China despite an ecological mission and a recent thaw in relations with the Asian superpower.
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte told local media in late November he planned to issue an executive order declaring the triangle of water inside Scarborough Shoal a no-fishing zone. Duterte said he had notified his Chinese counterpart of his intention for the shoal, encompassing about 158 square kilometers (58 square miles) of water.
China and the Philippines have tried since August to repair relations damaged in part by competing claims to the tiny land form 198 kilometers (123 miles) west of Luzon Island. Vessels from China and the Philippines entered a two-month standoff at the shoal in 2012. The president’s order would effectively reassert Philippine sovereignty.
“Designating the Scarborough Shoal area as a marine sanctuary would be a renewed claim by the Philippines to sovereignty over that area,” said Jonathan Spangler, director of the South China Sea Think Tank in Taipei. “Any unilateral actions that imply sovereignty are likely to cause friction between rival claimants, even if they are framed as marine conservation efforts.”
China claims about 95 percent of the South China Sea, including waters west of the Philippine archipelago. It has upset Manila and four other Asian governments since 2010 by reclaiming land for artificial islets, militarizing some of them and passing vessels through tracts of ocean claimed by other countries.
The sea, which is about 3.5 million square kilometers (1.4 million square miles), ranges from Singapore to Taiwan. It’s prized for fisheries, shipping lanes and possible fossil fuel reserves under the seabed.
Duterte wants the marine sanctuary to help replenish fish in the shoal where stocks have been depleted, Philippine National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon said at an Asia Pacific leadership meeting in Peru November 20.
The adviser said the government might send civilian coast guard personnel to the shoal and that he hoped China would accept the marine conservation plan.
Duterte visited Beijing in October and Chinese officials pledged then $24 billion in aid for the Philippines. The visit also eased tension created under Duterte’s predecessor, who took Beijing to a world arbitration court over its maritime claims. The court ruled July 12 that China lacked a legal basis to claim much of the sea.
China should accept the marine sanctuary proposal as it would regenerate fish and avoid the question of sovereignty, said Ramon Casiple, executive director of the Philippine advocacy group Institute for Political and Electoral Reform.
Two sides will talk
The two sides agreed in October to discuss the South China Sea issue eventually including possible joint exploration for gas or oil.
“Marine sanctuary, fishing rights, coast guard cooperation, access to Scarborough Shoal, (they are) not really touching on the sovereignty issue,” Casiple said.
China has not weighed in. The foreign ministry spokesman in Beijing said only that the Chinese claims to sovereignty over the shoal will not change. The marine sanctuary would need “at least tacit approval” from related claimants other than Manila to reduce South China Sea tensions, Spangler said.
Elsewhere in the South China Sea, Taiwan formed a national park nine years ago at Dongsha Atoll in the Pratas archipelago to regenerate coral. China claims the Pratas as well but has not overtly challenged Taiwan’s sanctuary.
In October a city in China ordered anyone without government approval to avoid an ecologically unique, 301-meter-deep (987-foot) ocean sinkhole on a Paracel Island holding near Vietnam.
Manila’s maritime protection area may be seen as an assertion of sovereignty without the boldness of a military move, said Douglas Guilfoyle, associate international law professor at Monash University in Australia.
Manila also has the right to declare it unilaterally because the shoal is within its 200 nautical-mile (370-km) exclusive economic zone, he said.
“I don’t think there’s any internationally agreed definition of what a marine protection area means,” Guilfoyle said.
Last year the world court ruled that Britain violated international law in setting up a marine protected area around the Chagos Archipelago, which is also claimed by the nearby Indian Ocean nation of Mauritius.
“One way of characterizing it may be in essence a peaceful assertion of sovereignty in that if you declare that you are going to be attempting to be protecting and preserving the environment in an area, the objective sounds laudable and the means by which you would normally do it would be through coast guard or fisheries inspectorate vessels, so it looks much less heavy handed than sending in the navy,” he said. “But nonetheless it is a display of sovereign authority.”