On April 10, 2012, Filipino sailors inspected Chinese fishing vessels earlier spotted roaming in Philippine waters by Philippine Navy surveillance planes. They discovered tons of illegally acquired large clams, corals, and other marine species already classified as endangered. Instead of surrendering, two bigger Chinese surveillance ships intervened impeding the intended arrest of the Chinese fishermen. The maritime standoff happened in the West Philippine Sea referred by China as South China Sea in a little shoal called Panatag claimed by China as Huangyan Island.
Panatag is a Filipino word that roughly translates to tranquility or peace. It is also the name given to a cluster of reefs found west of Luzon, the biggest island of the Philippines (Panatag Shoal is internationally known as Scarborough). The shoal is known for the dense marine life it fosters and possible oil and gas deposits it contains. Ironically, the current tension stemming from what occurred in the shoal is nowhere near tranquil and peaceful. This quaint shoal might just be the cause of war between China and the Philippines.
China’s claim on the shoal is based on historical rights. According to Chinese scholars, there are historical documents proving China’s discovery of the shoal. China practically claims all land formations found in South China Sea. Conversely, the Philippine claim on the shoal is primarily based on the United Nations Convention on the Laws of the Seas. According to UNCLOS, countries are entitled to an exclusive economic zone spanning 200 nautical miles from the shore. Exclusive economic zones are maritime regions that can be utilized and explored by a country that has explicit rights over it.
The Philippines has invited China in more than one occasion to raise the issue to the United Nations. China refuses up to this date. China has also released a statement advising its citizens to avoid travelling to the Philippines due to the possible escalation of the conflict. A number of Chinese travel agencies have also suspended Philippine tours as per government orders. On the contrary, the Philippines hasn’t ordered any travel bans to China but is suspiciously in contact with the United States military in case the conflict spirals and the country will obviously be needing military assistance.
The tension has also reached the shores and into the streets and even in cyberspace. Filipinos have organized world-wide protests to condemn the maritime bullying of China. Chinese protests to assert ownership over Huangyan Island, meanwhile, are occurring in Hongkong and Shanghai. Chinese and Filipino hackers have also taken turns defacing websites of government agencies and state-run institutions. Never late, netizens have turned to social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter to express their views regarding the standoff.
Territorial disputes are not a new thing especially to an archipelagic country like the Philippines. The country has a dormant claim over Sabah, Malaysia’s second largest state and is also asserting sovereignty over the Spratly Islands – equally claimed by Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan, Vietnam and of course, China. The Scarborough Shoal dispute is a bit striking not because of the land mass at stake or the people involved but the blatant showcase of power play between a powerful nation and a “lesser” state. Although this kind of oppression is not entirely new, the mere fact that the action was deliberate and unconcealed made all the difference (assuming that developed countries then had the “delicadeza” to commit bullying unobtrusively). The way Filipinos see it, it was “bullying” and they were angry – a sentiment the Philippine government cannot convey to China given the political and economic repercussions. What can a struggling state in conflict with an economic superpower do anyway other than gracefully lose the fight? Although diplomacy is arguably the best way to settle conflicts, Filipinos believe that it is now time we assert what we think is right and not perennially rely on passivity and diplomatic guilt-tripping. And if they deem government assertion is not enough, well, they have ample space to wage war in a cyber realm that is the internet.
Clearly, the internet has leveled the playing field even in political conflicts like the Scarborough Standoff. It has made both parties bolder in expressing their opinions toward the matter. Some, all in 140 characters. Hacking has also become a showcase of nationalism and political posts of young bloggers underline the new heights reached by cyberactivism. Crazy as it sounds, people would go out of their way to plot maps and photoshop pictures just to prove their point. It is not just a word war. It is a “meme” war and we are all “liking” it.
“What do they get from this?” a friend asked.
“Let them enjoy their newly discovered power brought about by the internet,” I replied.
“But it doesn’t really do anything to solve the conflict,” she protested.
I fell into deep thought. Perhaps, both parties have been carried away by the heat of the conflict. Come to think of it, the Scarborough/Panatag/Huangyan Shoal is just a string of massive stones so constricted it’s practically unlivable. But it is resource-rich. It cultivates marine life that is sadly, not enough for our greed. My personal anger comes from the sad reality that we have lost value for life. We are reaping massive amounts of resources all for the sake of profit and oblivious to the generations that will come after ours. It’s not a matter of politics but of ethics and sustainability. Something least stressed in the influx of posts, tweets and status updates flooding our news feeds. For all we know, hype will go down simultaneous with the depletion of the resources the shoal is fostering. And we all lose.
Dr. Pat Mische, a peace educator, put it best when she explained how the future of the world will be determined by the victor of the two currently competing world views: the earth as a commodity and the earth as a community. I think that is the war we should be more concerned about.