Wednesday May 27, 2020


April 18, 2012

China and the Philippines continued a stalemate over the Scarborough Shoal today, with both sides keeping vessels in the area to back up their competing claims to the disputed region. The stalemate began on April 10, when a warship from the Philippines confronted eight Chinese fishing vessels anchored off Scarborough Shoal. The Philippines accused the fisherman of illegally harvesting coral, giant clams, and live sharks, and sought to detain them. Chinese surveillance ships arrived to block the Philippine ship from the fishing vessels, leading to a tense stalemate that is now in its eighth day.

There was a brief respite over the weekend. On Friday, April 13, the Philippine warship left the area and the next day the Chinese fishing vessels left with their cargo intact. However, a coast guard ship from the Philippines and two Chinese vessels still remain in the area, with neither government seeming willing to be the first to leave the area. Both the Chinese and Philippine governments have accused their counterpart of “harassing” ships within their territory. In the latest incident, a Philippine vessel said to be an archaeological research ship entered the region, leading to strenuous protests from the Chinese, who claim Scarborough Shoal (called Huangyan Island in Chinese) as their exclusive territory.

Both sides have registered diplomatic protests, but also remain committed to resolving the dispute through negotiations. China says it is committed to acting with restraint and solving the issue diplomatically, but urges the Philippines to withdraw all its vessels from the region “to restore peace and stability.” Meanwhile, Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario issued a statement saying “we fully intend to humbly invite our Chinese friends to join us in the International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea (ITLOS).” Both sides also emphasize that they remain in close contact and that discussions are on-going.

However, negotiations have been complicated by joint military exercises between the U.S. and the Philippines, which began in close proximity to the disputed region on April 16. Officials from the American and Philippine governments insist that the exercises have nothing to do with the standoff with China, noting that the joint maneuvers were planned months in advance. But many in China see the exercises as a veiled warning to China. Even before the added tension of the current dispute, many Chinese analysts believed the U.S. and Philippine’s determination to seek out increased military cooperation was meant to target China. Some experts in China even believe that the Philippines deliberately prolonged the standoff over the Scarborough Shoal so that it would overlap with the military exercises, as a way to drag America into the dispute. China insists that its territorial disputes should be handled only in bilateral discussions with the other country involved, and has vocally protested American comments on such disputes as “interference.”

The current stalemate is but one flare-up in a long-standing territorial dispute. The Philippines claims that since the Scarborough Shoal is only around 140 miles off the coast of the Philippine island of Luzon, it should be part of the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of the Philippines. According to the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea, coastal countries can claim the area within a distance of 200 miles from their coast as an EEZ; Scarborough Shoal would fall into this area for the Philippines. Thus, the Philippines claims that Chinese vessels in the area are “engaging in illegal activities within the Philippine Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).” However, China disputes this claim by claiming that historical records show Chinese exploration and fishing activities have been occurring in the area for centuries. Due to this, China believes that Scarborough Shoal  should not be considered part of the Philippine EEZ due to the historical Chinese presence there. It is “an integral part of Chinese territory,” according to Vice Foreign Minister Fu Ying.

The dispute over the Scarborough Shoal is one of many territorial disputes in the South China Sea, an area rich in oil and gas deposits. Besides China and the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei, and Malaysia also have conflicting claims over various parts of the Sea, and last year saw a number of tense confrontations over disputed areas. Currently the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is considering possible strategies for mediating the disputes, but the potential for conflict is still high, as the current confrontation near the Scarborough Shoal proves.


For more information on the dispute over Scarborough Shoal, please see the following news sources:

AFP – “Stalemate remains in maritime dispute: Philippines

BBC – “Philippines and China in fresh maritime dispute

China Daily – “China summons Manila diplomat over sea dispute

The Guardian – “Philippine warship in standoff with China vessels

Philippines Official Gazette – “Statement of the Secretary of Foreign Affairs on the Scarborough Shoal issue, April 17, 2012

Reuters – “Standoff near Philippines over; Chinese boats keep catch

Xinhua – “Chinese fishing boat returns after stalemate with Philippine Navy


For Chinese commentary on the dispute over Scarborough Shoal, please see the following news sources:

Global Times (环球时报) – “黄岩岛对峙继续菲律宾尴尬软化 专家:美国东盟不买账

Sina (新浪新闻) – “评论称中菲黄岩岛对峙可能持久化

People’s Daily (人民网) – “人民日报:菲美军演敏感时刻举行


Edited and compiled by Shannon Reed.