Manila, The Philippines - For many Filipinos, it's a no-brainer: Scarborough Shoal, the triangle-shaped 150 square kilometre grouping of reefs and rocky islets less than 200 nautical miles from their eastern coastline, belongs to the Philippines. It's within the boundary of an exclusive economic zone and extended continental shelf as outlined by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).
Filipinos call it "Panatag" Shoal, which means "peaceful" in Tagalog. It takes their fishermen, in their small motorised boats, anywhere from 12-18 hours to get to Panatag from the closest populated town. The fishermen spend days sleeping in their boats while out there, but the catch they come back with is better than many of them have ever seen elsewhere. So it's worth the hardship. While their largest boats can carry three tonnes back to shore, fishing season is only a few months of the year - but Panatag fishermen can make enough money in those few months to care for their families until the next season starts.
"We should all be able to fish there," Migueal Bitana, a 45-year-old Filipino fisherman, said calmly. His "we" included other nations as well. "We are both benefitting from it," he reiterated - showing no animosity towards the larger country far across the water that also claims the reef as its own.
"As long as we all do it - legally, and not abuse it by taking and taking. Pretty soon there will be nothing left, and they will have depleted the reef."
The abusive "they" that Bitana referred to are the Chinese. He said that Filipino fisher-folk can't compete with bigger and more modern Chinese vessels that also trawled through Scarborough. "They" could take as much as 25 tons on their ships, Bitana said, and he's seen them kill species that are endangered and protected, such as parrot fish, baby sharks, and coral.
It's accusations of illegal fishing that triggered this current maritime stand-off over Scarborough Shoal.
The Philippines received a report that eight Chinese ships were allegedly involved in "illegal fishing" in the shoal. In response, the Philippine navy sent a warship to investigate. Filipino naval officials said the warship was sent only because it happened to be the vessel closest to the shoal at the time. China, however, took this as an aggressive act, so it sent its own surveillance ships to intervene in the Philippine sailors’ attempt to detain the suspected illegal fishermen.
China maintains there was no 'illegal" fishing taking place, since Chinese fishermen are within their rights to fish in "Chinese waters". Scarborough Shoal, or "Huangyan Island", as the Chinese call it, "inherently" belongs to China, they say.
Chinese scholars say there are historical documents showing China was the first to discover the atoll group, and the Philippines can't contest it. As far as China is concerned, all of the South China Sea (which the Philippines now refers to as the West Philippine Sea) belongs to China.
For days, the brewing maritime tension was kept under wraps. The chief of the Philippine navy was at a press conference with foreign media while this was first unfolding - and managed not to say anything about it, although he clearly looked preoccupied and left early. But, eventually, the navy released photos of the protected marine life it claims to have found as "catch" on those Chinese boats. This came alongside the secretary of foreign affairs issuing strong statements condemning China’s "bullying" behaviour. At one point, the foreign secretary even implied China could not be trusted, after a meeting with the Chinese ambassador to Manila failed to bring about the expected results.
And so began the back and forth. Both sides insisting the other was at fault, and demanding the other withdraw its ships from the shoal. By this time, the Philippine warship had left the area - but this did not defuse the situation. The Philippine Coast Guard, which now had a ship there, even released the detained Chinese fishermen - complete with their "illegal" catch.
But the dispute continued. Five weeks on, both countries still have civilian - or "public service" - ships in the area. Coast Guard vessels, surveillance ships, even a research boat and a few brave fishing vessels. Like schools of sharks circling their prey, waiting for the other to take the first bite - so they might be justified in retaliation. The Philippine ships have accused the Chinese of acts of intimidation, while Chinese sailors say the Philippine ships are "trespassing".
The whole matter is tiresome for fishermen such as Miguel Bitana, who wishes a final resolution could be reached. He hasn't been able to return to the shoal since the stand-off began. No fishing, no livelihood. He worries for his family.
Bitana added that Chinese and Filipino fishermen managed to co-exist around the shoal before, and he longs for that again.
The Philippines has invited China to take the matter to international arbitration, but China has declined, saying there was no need for mediation over something that is clearly "incontestable". Huangyan Island belongs to China. End of story. China has also pointed out it was not "obliged" to participate in international adjudication - as, back in 2006, it made its position clear in a written statement to the UN secretary general: despite being an UNCLOS signatory, China would not submit to arbitration over "maritime delimitation, territory and military activities".
China says the Philippines knew its position and was trying to discredit the Chinese government by making the invitation, as it could cast China in a bad light, making it appear as if the Asian giant was ignoring the international judicial system.
But there are those in the Philippines now wondering if the reason China won't appear before an international tribunal is because it knows it would lose. Its nearest land mass is 472 nautical miles from Scarborough. Both countries are signatories of UNCLOS, and the UN has just approved the Philippine claim over Benham Rise - another maritime region within 200 nautical miles to its east in the Pacific Ocean. The Philippines expects to be able to successfully claim Scarborough, under the same international maritime convention.
UNCLOS required archipelagic countries such as the Philippines to pass a law defining its baselines by 2009. In a controversial and unpopular move, then president Gloria Arroyo did just that - excluding disputed areas such as Scarborough Shoal and the Spratly islands. She was seen to be currying favour with China - and is actually now under arrest, charged with corruption (among other offences) in relation to a Chinese business deal gone wrong.
Arroyo's term ended in 2010. The following year, the Supreme Court, under the leadership of her close ally and appointee, upheld her declaration of the baseline law. That same year, the northern town of Masinloc claimed Scarborough as part of its municipality - being only 200 kilometres away. It was hoped this would help strengthen the original Philippine claim to the area - regardless of what had been signed into law by Arroyo.
So, even if, technically, Scarborough Shoal may belong to the Philippines under the exclusive economic zone and extended continental shelf conditions of UNCLOS, it would seem President Arroyo gave up the country's rights over it, by excluding it from the 2009 baseline map, and leaving the disputed areas in both literal and metaphorical "ambiguous waters" by regarding them solely as a "regime of islands".
And to think, in 2002, pre-dating all this, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and China had managed to agree to abide by a code of conduct in those same disputed waters.
Hackers, tourists, rallies and bananas
The United States, the Philippines' most powerful ally, is staying out of the whole mess, at least for now. But it does have a joint mutual defence agreement with the Philippines - so it could be dragged into a potential armed conflict, something both China and the Philippines have said they were avoiding. Officials from both governments appear to have backed off from the strong rhetoric and insist they are working to find a diplomatic solution to the latest kerfuffle - but passions in both countries have already been inflamed. Nationalist pride has been stoked.
The University of the Philippines' website was brought down by suspected Chinese hackers, who defaced the homepage with the Chinese claim to Scarborough Shoal. Chinese university websites were then hacked in response with the Philippine counterclaim.
Four weeks into the stand-off, Chinese travel agencies suspended tours to the Philippines, concerned, they said, about growing anti-Chinese sentiment. This is not great news for the Philippine tourism industry. It was just recovering from a lack of confidence after a bus hostage crisis in 2010 that left eight Chinese nationals dead. And China is the Philippines' fourth largest source of tourists.
|'Unofficial' protests have erupted in front of Chinese embassies as the stand-off continues [EPA]
On Friday, four weeks since the stand-off began, Filipinos staged "anti-Chinese bullying" demonstrations in front of Chinese embassies in cities around the world. The government of President Benigno Aquino III distanced itself from the rallies, clarifying they were not officially sanctioned, and were organised by private citizens. Chinese nationals have also staged similar, albeit smaller, rallies in front of Philippine consulates.
Again, both countries reiterate they are not pushing for war - at least not in the literal, military sense. But many Filipinos feel China has begun putting an economic choke-hold on the country instead. News has broken that millions of dollars' worth of Philippine bananas are being held at Chinese ports and not being allowed into the country. China says its because they no longer pass new, stricter, quality control measures. Filipino exporters say there is nothing wrong with their bananas and they are now being used as pawns in the Scarborough conflict. One exporter said that, if things carry on this way, the entire banana industry would shut down.
In the Philippines, the Scarborough dispute has been likened to the biblical tale of David and Goliath. The frail, young man with nerves of steel who confronts an as-yet undefeated giant.
Chinese officials feel the situation is more akin to swatting a fly. The giant Goliath, unbelieving that the untested David would even dare cast the first stone. And just like David, many Filipinos are unafraid. They have their faith - and they believe they have the moral ascendancy. It's easy to stand united before a single, common enemy.
But the enemy here may not just be on the outside. There are also Filipinos who feel this is a problem exacerbated by weak, unscrupulous leaders and the country's own self-contradictions throughout the years. President Arroyo's baseline law is seen by many as a proverbial shot in the foot. A shot that could ring out louder than any roar the Philippines might now make in staking its claim over Scarborough - regardless of any UN conventions.
Follow Marga Ortigas on Twitter: @margaortigas