This is what I get for going on vacation. As always seems to befall the hosts of The Daily Show and Colbert Report, my absence appeared to correspond with a wealth of new material and events. Luckily my friends and colleagues in our blog roll on the right did a pretty decent job of covering most of the angles.
The shooting was certainly unfortunate, and was undoubtedly an action not taken lightly. But a student of history, thethreat level in the region, and common sense cannot find fault with the actions of the crew in the circumstances. Driving at a naval vessel in close quarters and ignoring its warnings is akin to pointing something that looks like a weapon at a police officer and ignoring his warnings to put it down. As a former anti-terrorism officer I can attest that these types of scenarios were the last thing we wanted to encounter, but the rules were clear and the training thorough. While the outcome in this case is tragic, it is also understandable.
Trouble at Sea
Other tragedies struck the maritime community. In the mid-Atlantic, a fire broke out aboard the MSC Flaminia that set off an explosion killing two crew members and injuring more. In an echo of a ferry disaster in September that claimed 200 lives,another ferry sank en route to the Zanzibar archipelago off Tanzania’s coast. The latest count is at least 31 dead.
The Great Wall at Sea
There has been some positive maritime news. A Taiwanese vessel and its international crew (including 13 PRC nationals) have been “freed” (it’s unclear if any ransom was paid) and the crew taken to Tanzania by a Chinese naval vessel on a counter-piracy patrol. The fishing vessel, Shiuh Fu No. 1, has reportedly run aground.
A less fortunate Chinese frigate ran aground on Half Moon Shoal in the Philippine’s EEZ (not to be confused with its territorial waters, which would be a much bigger story) before refloating Sunday.
Speaking of China, the mainland managed to check off another country on its “maritime disputes with neighbors” punch card. Following similar disputes this year with Vietnam, the Philippines, Japan, and even North Korea, China is embroiled in fishing-fueled spat with Russia after 2 of its fishing vessels and 36 crewmembers were detained by Russia’s coast guard. One of the ships was taken in dramatic fashion, as the vessel was fired on and rammed by the Russians after its crewmembers resisted arrest for fishing in Russia’s EEZ. Whether China applies the same intense diplomatic pressure it did following Japan’s seizure of a Chinese fishing boat captain in 2010 remains to be seen. Meanwhile, the Philippine’s government is apparently confused whether a flotilla of another 30 Chinese fishing boats under government escort is in fact in its territory, or not.
Civilian authorities spot a foreign fishing vessel trawling their nation’s territorial waters. The authorities move to intercept but are held at bay by the offending vessel’s government escorts. The scene: Gibraltar. The actors: The U.K. and Spain.
The long-running territorial dispute between Spain and the U.K. over the famous gateway to the Mediterranean has grabbed headlines locally in recent weeks as Spanish trawlers have twice fished in Gibraltar’s territorial waters while Spanish Civil Guardia vessels escorted the vessels.
According to the BBC, in the latest incident four police vessels and a British Royal Navy patrol boat intercepted a single trawler but did not attempt to board the vessel as it was shadowed by two Civil Guardia vessels. Spokesman for the Royal Gibraltar Police, Richard Ullger, said “we avoid active enforcement because it could provoke an incident.” Yet the captain of the Spanish trawler, Francisco Gomez, highlighted the tenseness of the confrontation claiming the vessels were so close that some of the hulls scraped each other. After 6 hours the vessel left. The Royal Gibraltar Police will issue a court summons for the crew, but it is not expected that they will appear in court.
In light of the incident a Member of the European Parliament for Gibraltar, Julie Girling warned, “What we don’t want in Gibraltar is a situation like the Falklands: there seem to be disturbing parallels in attempts to damage the livelihoods of Gibraltar’s fishermen.”
Girling was of course referring to the current situation in the Falkland’s, not the situation preceding the 1982 war. Yet a comparison between Gibraltar, the Falklands (then and now), and the South China Sea yields interesting insights.
In all three locales, resources contained therein play a role in pushing confrontation. In the South China Sea, rich fishing banks and oil exploration are primary causes for the scramble for territory. In Gibraltar, resources are not really the prize (besides for the local small-scale fishing operations) – the fishing expeditions merely provide a convenient means for pushing the larger territorial claim. Resources didn’t play much part sparking the Falklands War, but today many believe the resurgence of Argentine clamor for the islands is due to the potential oil reserves and fishing that invigorated the islands since the war. Today, the U.K. claims harassment of its own boats in Falklands water by Argentine coast guard vessels.
With regards to both the Chinese and Spanish fishing vessels, one of the more interesting questions is whether it is fishermen or government officials who are the driving force for journeys into contested waters. Are the maritime officials simply assisting their citizens in pursuit of excellent fishing grounds, or are they providing safety to vessels recruited and sent forward in calculated moves? How high in the government do such sensitive expeditions need approval?
The strategic value of these bits of territory also plays a role in their attraction. Gibraltar, dominating the chokepoint between the Mediterranean and the Atlantic, also oversees much traffic that heads through the Suez Canal. Islands in the South China Sea sit astride trade routes vital for many economies, and can serve as forward operating bases or logistics and communications relays. The only exception is the Falklands, despite one Argentine paper’s claim at the time of the war that the islands were “strategically important because they were on a direct maritime route to India.”
One of the most important distinctions between the South China Sea and the other two instances is that of self-determination. On the issue of sovereign control of territory, international law, international institutions, and disinterested intentional sentiment routinely come down on the side of the principle of self-determination. In Gibraltar the locals have voted in referendums for continued British rule (by 98.9% in 2002). The British meanwhile say they are open to a UN-sponsored referendum in the Falklands, where a similar result is likely, and tellingly it’s an offer the Argentines ignore. This makes it hard for Argentina or Spain to rally legal or global public opinion to their side. The difference for the South China Sea islands is that by and large there are no locals. Most of the bits of territory are tiny non self-sustainable pieces of rock or submerged reef, making resolution harder.
Of these points of conflict, the only that so far turned into a shooting war in modern times was the Falklands. In that case the dictatorship generated a nationalist distraction from a plummeting economy. As smarter people than me have said, this is one good reason no one should wish for the Chinese economy to slow precipitously. While Spain and Argentina today are in their own economic messes, both have the safety valve and check on their actions of democracy.
The good news is that the most common denominator in all of these cases is at least lip service towards peaceful resolution. Despite the nationalist push for the Falklands, President Cristina Kirchner has stated she will obtain the islands only through peaceful means. Foreign ministers of Spain and Britain met Tuesday and urged a peaceful resolution to the fishing issue. In Cambodia the defense secretaries of China and Philippines did the same on the same day.
While no longer making regular headlines, the stand-off over the Scarborough Shoal/Panatag Shoal/Huangyan Island continues. Since April 10th both China and the Philippines have maintained a presence in the area, but one limited to civilian agencies – the Philippines Coast Guard on one side, and the Chinese Maritime Surveillance agency on the other.
Rather than trading literal broadsides, China and the Philippines have fought this dispute mostly through the figurative variety in the diplomatic and economic spheres. Philippines President Benigno Aquino suggested exploring joint ventures in the area and sent envoys to Beijing to attempt to resolve the crisis. China meanwhile issued travel advisories for the Philippines, halted tours, scaled back commercial flights, and quarantined incoming Philippine bananas on pest-control grounds.
Both nations have issued fishing bans on the Shoal area in the past week. The Chinese most likely issued the ban because their own fishermen will stay away until monsoon rains abate in the fall, and the stay-behind surveillance ship snow have a pretext in the ban for enforcement. The Philippines, meanwhile, supposedly issued their own ban in order to protect depleted fishing stocks, but this adversely affects the economies of local fishing communities that depend on fishing the Shoal grounds year-round to make their livelihoods.
With personal financial stability and pride at stake, it’s no surprise that civilians at times seem readier to push the situation towards a conflict than the two nations’ governments. In addition to the wide-spread nationalism (and minor protest rallies) whipped up on both sides and given voice in online forums, some 20 protestors and camera crew planned to make the case for the Philippines by setting up a protest on the shoal itself. They were persuaded by President Aquino to allow the government negotiators in Beijing a chance to achieve a constructive outcome.
Despite what my colleague believesabout the benefits of the U.S. sitting on the sidelines of the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, the Scarborough Shoal stand-off is an apt example of how not having ratified the treaty can hamstring the U.S.’ ability to bring pressure to bear on another country (China) for failing to live up to its treaty obligations in pursuance of a peaceful and diplomatic resolution. For while the Philippines is building a case for the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS), one of the UNCLOS conflict-resolution mechanisms, China, another signatory, refuses to abide by any rulings of the tribunal.
With the stand-off as a backdrop, both sides are expanding their naval forces. The Philippine navy is set to take possession of another U.S. Coast Guard vessel Tuesday, the ex-USCGC Dallas, of the same type as its current flagship, the BRP Gregorio del Pilar. The Chinese Maritime Surveillance administration is also rapidly expanding in numbers (h/t Chuck Hill – CGBlog.org). This is the agency that intervened at the Shoal and prevented the Philippine navy from arresting the Chinese fisherman whose discovery began the current stand-off. While a nation with an expansive coastline and far-flung fishing interests has legitimate needs for a competent coast guard, the continuing Scarborough Shoal stand-off is just one more illustration that ships of this agency are enforcers of state policy, and Chinese maritime state policy has been rather uncompromising of late.
Two quick videos from Al-Jazeera English (which this week was kicked out of China) portraying two of the most important motivators in the scramble for territory in the South China Sea, oil and food. In the first, China is demonstrating increased deep-sea drilling know-how, which may mean a near-to-medium-term increase in unilateral oil exploration and drilling in contested waters.
The second video shows the impact of the stand-off at the Scarborough Shoal on Filipino fishing villages in the area.