With a typhoon conveniently churning in the distance, the Philippines has withdrawn its forces from the Scarborough Shoal in what Manila said was a temporary, weather-related move. So far, a larger, Chinese naval deployment shows no signs of going away.Philippine sources say there was an agreement that both sides would withdraw if the Philippines left first. We shall see; China is praising the Philippine redeployment, but as of this writing, its ships are still in place.China and the Philippines have been locked in a standoff over the uninhabited maritime feature (which the Chinese call Huangyan Island) since early April, and at times tensions have been high. Bloggers and other voices in both countries have urged the governments to hang tough.For the US, it’s been an early test of our new Asian strategy. Washington supports the desire of the smaller countries around China to resolve boundary disputes through multilateral negotiations and in accordance with the principles of international agreements like the Law of the Sea Treaty (a treaty that, China points out acerbically, the US has never ratified).The Philippines have announced they are taking the dispute to the international organization charged with resolving disputes under LOST (as the Law of the Sea Treaty is often known). China has reiterated its desire to settle matters in a bilateral negotiation with the much smaller and weaker island nation. The US has affirmed its support for a multilateral approach to the boundary question, but did not give Manila the assurances it wanted that the US would back up the Philippine claim to the area by force.So, China and the Philippines continue to disagree. The typhoon gave Manila an opportunity to save face, and while Manila’s retreat gives China the chance to claim a win, the underlying facts remain as they were: the Philippines, with US encouragement, are resisting China’s demand to enter bilateral negotiations over the maritime boundary.The Scarborough Shoal incident may be ending, but the South China Sea dispute is only beginning to make its presence felt in international affairs. As the US “repositions” toward Asia, and as China continues to assert its claims in waters through which something like 40 percent of world trade passes, with sea lanes of vital interest to Japan and territories claimed by China’s neighbors, the South China Sea is on track to become the chief flashpoint of international relations in our time.
Manila Steps Back in Asian Game of Thrones