Chinese patrol vessels nearly crashed into Filipino fishing boats recently, steaming up alongside and blasting the fishermen with sound horns. On another occasion Chinese authorities ordered Filipino fishermen to leave the Scarborough Shoal, a disputed island chain where the fishermen had taken refuge in bad weather.
In response to this escalation of aggressive behavior the Philippines is taking China to a UN arbitration tribunal (much like Japan in a separate territorial dispute). “The Philippines has exhausted almost all political and diplomatic avenues for a peaceful negotiated settlement of its maritime disputes with China,” said the Filipino Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert Del Rosario on Tuesday.
Beijing’s response was immediate: the Chinese embassy in Manila said China “has indisputable sovereignty over the islands in South China Sea and its adjacent waters.”
Despite the heated and exhausted rhetoric on both sides, it’s good to see these countries going to the UN to peacefully resolve territorial disputes. While the danger remains that hot headed actions by ship captains and other low ranking officials on either side could launch a dangerous confrontation that, in a worst-case scenario, could draw the United States Navy into the fray, keeping the diplomatic channels open matters. The best outcome, a pragmatic, temporary solution that gives both sides reasonable economic rights while pushing off the final status question into the future, has a better chance of emerging from diplomatic contacts than from confrontations at sea.