China and the Philippines both pulled their fishing boats from a disputed shoal in the South China Sea, giving time for both governments to reevaluate the standoff.
A calm after two months of extreme tension between China and the Philippines over rights to a strategically important sea area is giving both sides room to reevaluate foreign policy and size up the US role in the dispute before deciding any next moves.
Both governments say ships have left Scarborough Shoal, a disputed coral reef at the epicenter of the tensions between the two countries 143 miles west of the main Philippine island of Luzon. The Philippine foreign ministry said that “following consultations,” two Chinese ships and one of its own fisheries agency vessels had pulled out from a lagoon near the shoal.
Though some reports said both sides left because of typhoon season, the departures ease severe tension that had mounted from April, when the Philippines tried to arrest the crews of eight Chinese fishing boats. Still, the pullback doesn’t mean the Manila-Beijing dispute is over: US support of its longtime ally the Philippines also shows signs of consolidating, and future trouble could pit the world’s top two superpowers against one another.
“Any time we see a US ally and a potential adversary backing down, mutually deciding to defuse a situation, that’s a good thing,” says Brad Glosserman, executive director of the Honolulu-based think tank Pacific Forum CSIS.
“But does it settle anything? Clearly not. Next we’re going to see a renewed standoff or a push by either China or the Philippines to reach a working agreement on how to handle these situations,” he says. “Otherwise we’ll see another standoff not too far in the future. My money is on the standoff. The stakes are getting higher.”
China and the Philippines – along with Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan, and Vietnam – claim all or part of the vast South China Sea around Scarborough Shoal. The uninhabited 1.4 million-square-mile area is rich in fish, with oil or natural gas possibly under the seabed.
China depends on the sea’s fisheries to feed its increasingly wealthy population of 1.3 billion. Its state-owned oil firm CNOOC said in March it would start drilling in the sea as the Philippines prepares to award as many as 15 exploration contracts.