04/20/2012, 00.00
PHILIPPINES - CHINA

Tensions rise between Beijing and Manila over South China Sea

China sends a third patrol vessel to the Scarborough Shoal, a small island off the coast of the Philippines. The navies of the two nations are at a standoff over the shoal, which has rich fishing grounds and seabed minerals. Manila plans to go to UN court to press its case.

Manila (AsiaNews/ Agencies) - Despites appeals by Manila, tensions between the Philippines and China are rising over the South China Sea as China sends another patrol vessel to the Scarborough Shoal, 220 km from Luzon (Philippines), which both Beijing and Manila claim for its wealth of natural resources. In their response, Filipino authorities have accused the Chinese of seeking a military escalation without reason.

Today Filipino Foreign Affairs spokesman Raul Hernandez said that his government is prepared to go to the International Tribunal on the Law of the Seas (ITLOS) for redress. "If China will not go with us to ITLOS, our legal team will go to ITLOS unilaterally," he said.

On 8 April, the BRP Gregorio del Pilar, the Filipino Navy's largest and newest ship, proceeded to the area to stop eight Chinese fishing boats, carrying corals, giant clams and live sharks as well as other endangered marine species, taken off the Scarborough Shoal, which the Chinese call Huangyan Island.

In response, China sent two maritime surveillance vessels to prevent the Gregorio del Pilar from stopping its fishing boats. This sparked a diplomatic row between the two nations.

Since 10 April the Filipino naval vessel, the two Chinese surveillance ships and the eight fishing boats have been at a standoff near the shoal.

Under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCOS), the dispute island is within the Philippines's recognised 370-kilometer Exclusive Economic Zone in which it can exercise special rights over the exploration and use of marine resources (fishing and mining).

Among all the nations in the Asia-Pacific region involved in the dispute, China has the most extensive claims in the South China Sea.

Exerting hegemonic control over the area would give Beijing a major strategic advantage in terms of trade and access to oil and natural gas.

Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan are opposed to China's expansionism, and can rely on the support of the United States, which has major strategic interests of its own in the area.

Vietnam and Philippines have complained about China's growing aggressiveness. During the last ASEAN summit on 3 April in Phnom Penh (Cambodia), Filipino President Benigno Aquino suggested that the ten-nation association "maintain a common stance" vis-à-vis China, which favours instead bilateral deals with the various stakeholders to take advantage of its greater economic and military power.

On Monday, the Philippines and the United States began 12 days of joint naval exercises. China slammed the move, criticising Manila for trying to exert its control in the South China Sea, proof of its "Cold War mentality".

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