Opinions — May 28, 2012 at 6:25 pm

Much Ado about Scarborough Shoal: Possible Effects of China’s Usurpation of Authority over a Hotly-Contested Territory

Martin Millete


The South China Sea (going by different names like the West Philippine Sea) is a treacherous hotbed of territorial disputes. As it is banked by several sovereign states, it thrives with several unincorporated islands claimed by several nations as part of their respective territories, particularly those from Southeast Asia and the People’s Republic of China (China). Yet, diplomatic altercations usually come to the fore as a result of contesting claims on those territories. Despite of that, international law, particularly the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), continues to be the supreme law governing said issue.

A major concern, however, is the defiance of a particular nation claiming ownership of territories on the South China Sea. In recent years, China has taken an aggressive stance towards its territorial claims. Boasting relative supremacy in terms of economic and military power compared to its neighbours and touted as a potential superpower because of its wide influence in global political and economic affairs, China’s aggressive moves towards the disputed territories on the South China Sea has become a major concern worldwide, citing the possibility that an arms race and eventually war might take place in the region.

Distance of Scarborough Shoal from China Image Source: forum.milavia.net

China’s most recent issue on its territorial claims involve the Philippines, an archipelagic nation sitting east of the South China Sea. As of this writing, both countries are contesting their claims on the Scarborough Shoal, a small island off the coast of the Philippines’ Luzon Island. Since the issue has escalated from the simple confrontation of fishing boats and military vessels on the island, animosity between the two countries arose. The aggression shown by China towards the issue is one that is being watched closely by the whole world, particularly because of the impending danger that it might bring in this peacetime era. At the same time, the Philippines’ refusal to adhere to China’s claim is a bold move that is seen as a firm assertion of territorial rights and observance of international law, contrary to China’s refusal to recognize the Philippines’ insistence to elevate the case to the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS).

Tensions have since grown from the time those marine vessels from both countries have confronted one another. Either side may win the dispute, but not without any hostility between China and the Philippines. But what happens if China gets to have its way on Scarborough Shoal? What kind of repercussions such move could bring to the Philippines and the whole world, in general?

1. Political Boundaries Drawn on High Seas Can Become Legal, Even With Weak Historical Basis

Imagine any coastal or island country having the freedom to indiscriminately draw boundaries over the bodies of water surrounding their territories. That scenario could be a possible precedent if ever China succeeds in imposing its primary argument over its territorial claims on the South China Sea. China’s “Nine-Dash Line” cites historical instances that are widely alleged as weak and mostly fake as its basis. If the Philippines ultimately gives in to the demand of China, then China’s basis for its claims can be emulated by other countries with similar cases, hence being a dangerous precedent.

2. The Power of the UNCLOS and the Jurisdiction of the ITLOS Will Be Bypassed and Rendered Ineffective

If China becomes successful in its claim over the Scarborough Shoal by way of its insistence on the Nine-Dash Line, then the whole issue would definitely zoom in on the power of the UNCLOS and its judicially-mandated body, the ITLOS. Being a covenant signed by different countries, the UNCLOS shall be deemed as binding on all of its signatories’ legal systems. China, being a signatory of the UNCLOS, is showing a clear defiance of the very covenant it signed. Plus, its refusal to bring the case to the ITLOS shows an eminent sign of China’s belligerence. Hence, when China succeeds in its rogue measures to claim Scarborough all to itself, its move could become a very dangerous precedent that could push away the power of the UNCLOS towards anarchy in the high seas.

Scope of China’s “Nine-Dash Line” Image source: http://www.menasborders.com/

3. Balanced Maritime Control over the South China Sea Will Be Severely Threatened 

The South China Sea is shared by different countries surrounding it – Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, China and the Philippines. Given that the Nine-Dash Line of China claims the whole of South China Sea, there will be severe limitations to commerce and travel over China’s so-called water territories. By claiming the whole of the South China Sea, China will have an unbridled control over the supposed high seas shared by other nations, which could affect their maritime commerce.


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