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Dispute over the South China Sea Escalates

April 11, 2012

The South China Sea is once again the source of rising tensions between China and the Philippines. The area in question is the Scarborough Shoal, a small chain of islands and reefs about 124 nautical miles off the Western coast of the Philippine island of Luzon, according to Al Jazeera (see article and map).  It is claimed by both China, as sovereign territory, and the Philippines, as part of that country’s 200-mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ). Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan, and Vietnam also lay claim to parts of the Sea, most of which is claimed by China. These countries all seek control over the area’s oil and gas deposits, fishing stock, and numerous sea lanes.

This most recent dispute began when a Philippine warship out on patrol found eight Chinese fishing vessels anchored in the area and discovered illegally harvested coral, clams, and live sharks, as reported by the Voice of America. The New York Times presents the following description of events:

“At about 7:20 in the morning, the boarding team started to conduct a board, search and seizure on the first Chinese fishing vessel and found large amounts of corals, sizable quantities of giant clams and live sharks in its compartments,” Admiral Pama told reporters Wednesday, adding that the other Chinese boats carried similar sea resources that he said were illegal to harvest.

On Tuesday afternoon, two Chinese surveillance ships, identified by Philippine officials as Zhonggou Haijian 75 and Zhonggou Haijian 84, took positions at the mouth of the lagoon within the shoal, blocking the Philippine Navy vessel’s access to the fishing boats inside.

One of the Chinese ships radioed the Philippine ship and said that the area was Chinese territory and that the Philippine Navy should withdraw. The Philippine captain responded that the shoal was his country’s territory. As of late Wednesday, the vessels remained in position.

In its statement, the Chinese Embassy said the fishing boats were in the lagoon seeking shelter from a storm when “a Philippine Naval gunboat blocked the entrance of the lagoon, and sent 12 Philippine soldiers, 6 of which armed, into the lagoon and harassed the Chinese fishermen.”

It went on to say that the embassy had contacted the Philippine government and “reiterated China’s sovereignty over Huangyan Island [China’s name for the island], urged the Philippine side to stop immediately their illegal activities and leave this area.”

This is only one in a series of run-ins between China and the Philippines in the South China Sea in the past year, but tensions are especially high this time around. The Christian Science Monitor reports that Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert Del Rosario has told China’s ambassador that “if the Philippines is challenged, we are prepared to secure our sovereignty.” A Chinese general has warned that the Philippines is “facing its ‘last chance’ to peacefully resolve sovereignty disputes over the South China Sea,” and that “the biggest miscalculation of the Philippines is that it has misestimated the strength and willpower of China to defends [sic] its territorial integrity.”

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