The term "rocky relations" took on new meaning after Chinese civilian maritime enforcement ships confronted a Philippines Navy frigate in a standoff over a disputed shoal in the South China Sea. The Scarborough Shoal is marked by five rocks, the tallest of which projects 3 meters above water at high tide. The surrounding fishing grounds and, more importantly, the legal principles determining ownership and right of exploitation are at issue.
How the dispute is resolved holds broader implications for the region wary of a rising China.
South China Sea islands and reefs have been a bone of contention between China and its neighbors for decades. Scarborough Shoal - a triangular-shaped chain of reefs and rocks, enclosing an area of 150 square kilometers - emerged as a new flashpoint in April. The shoal, approximately 200 kilometers west of Subic Bay, is north of the Spratly Islands, contested between China and Vietnam.
The standoff began 8 April when a Philippine reconnaissance aircraft spotted five Chinese fishing vessels in the lagoon. The Philippine Navy dispatched a frigate to investigate the Chinese vessels and two days later discovered giant clams, coral and sharks, species protected under Philippines law and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna.
Two China Marine Surveillance ships soon arrived, interposing themselves between the frigate and the fishing vessels. China and the Philippines formally protested the other's actions.
In an effort to lower tensions, the Philippines withdrew the navy frigate, replacing it with a Coast Guard cutter. The cutter was joined by a Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources vessel. China reinforced its presence by dispatching its newest Fishery Law Enforcement Command ship, Yuzheng 310. The standoff continues today.
Both China and the Philippines claim that Scarborough Shoal is an integral part of their national territory. China refers to Scarborough Shoal as Huangyan Island, claiming "indisputable sovereignty" over the island and adjacent waters on the basis of historical discovery.
Under the UN Convention on Law of the Sea, UNCLOS, an island is defined as a naturally formed feature that can support human habitation or has an economic function, and entitled to a 200-nautical-mile Exclusive Economic Zone, or EEZ. If a feature does not meet these criteria, it's classified as a rock, entitled to 12 nautical-miles of territorial waters, but not an exclusive economic zone. China's claim relates to sovereignty over territory and sovereign rights in waters generated from this territory. If Scarborough Shoal met the legal requirement for an island, it would generate the 200-nautical-mile zone. Failing to meet this requirement, each of the five rocks would be entitled to 12 nautical-miles of territorial waters
The Philippines refers to Scarborough Shoal as Panatag Shoal, arguing that if falls within its 200- nautical-mile EEZ. The claim rests on sovereign rights to the resources within the EEZ and continental shelf.
UNCLOS lacks authority to decide on sovereignty disputes over land features such as islands and rocks. The law applies only in cases of disputes arising from maritime jurisdiction.
China and the Philippines could resolve the dispute through bilateral negotiations or could agree to arbitration by an international tribunal such as the International Court of Justice. China argues that the dispute should be settled bilaterally; the Philippines wants the dispute to go before the International Tribunal on Law of the Sea, established by UNCLOS.