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“Chinese” Ship Rams Filippinos in Disputed Waters; 1 Dead

Philippine fishermen charged yesterday that a ship which “looked Chinese” rammed their fishing boat in waters near the disputed Scarborough Shoal. The boat sank; four of the crew are still missing and one died after being taken to a hospital on shore.

The incident comes barely days after a standoff between the Philippine and Chinese fleets at the Scarborough Shoal ended. Although the shoal is more than 700 miles from its coast, China claims that the shoal has been immemorially recognized as Chinese; the Philippines base their claim on the Law of the Sea Treaty which both nations have signed.

The incident will revive Philippine anger over the Chinese claims and what many Filipinos see as a high handed Chinese approach to the dispute. It will also put pressure on the United States, which has backed the demands of China’s neighbors to address the South China Sea boundary issue in multilateral forums according to recognized legal principles (like the Law of the Sea Treaty).

Because there do not seem to be any video recordings of the incident, it will be hard to establish whether the offending ship was a Chinese government ship or a private vessel, or even if the ship was Chinese at all. It will also be difficult to establish whether the ramming was accidental or deliberate. Given that, Philippine opinion will likely accept the story told by the sailors, while China will downplay the incident and deny responsibility.

Incidents like this have been reported for years; the waters around China and its neighbors are in dispute from Korea down to the Philippines and Vietnam, and they are among the most intensively fished in the world. They are also vital for purposes of world trade; something like 40 percent of the world’s ocean going commerce passes through the South China Sea. Japan and China depend on transit through these waters for the oil supplies on which their economies depend. Belief that there are substantial energy reserves beneath the sea further exacerbates the rivalries among the 8 governments with claims (North Korea, South Korea, Japan, China, Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia).

Managing the maritime disputes in this area has long been an American concern, but as Washington shifts the center of its grand strategy from Europe and the Middle East to Asia, the importance of these disputes is going to rise. While the US emphatically does not want to engage in maritime standoffs with China, it must find ways to ensure that China does not push its neighbors around.

What happens in the seas around China will help determine the course of world politics in the 21st century. Minor disputes over tiny islands can have historic consequences. The Obama administration and its successors are going to spend a lot of time coping with incidents like this one.

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  • Jacksonian Libertarian

    “China claims that the shoal has been immemorially recognized as Chinese”

    That is such garbage; they are claiming the entire South China Sea a thousand miles from their coastline, after signing the Law of the Sea Treaty. This is a Chinese provocation, and the Philippines should respond with force, it’s the only way to deal with bullies. Too bad the Kow Towing Obama doesn’t have their back.

  • Anthony

    See related George Will article (Washington Post) on Law of the Sea Treaty (LOST).

  • Kris

    “China claims that the shoal has been immemorially recognized as Chinese”

    That’s funny; it doesn’t look Chinese.

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