The standoff between China and the Philippines over the Scarborough Shoal, which has lasted for more than two months, may be winding down. On Monday, the Philippines announced that all boats had left the shoal’s lagoon. China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs noted that “the overall situation in the waters around Huangyan Island is easing.” As perhaps the longest such confrontation in the South China Sea in almost two decades, the standoff holds several lessons for similar disputes in these contested waters.
To review: The Scarborough Shoal is roughly 135 miles from the Philippines and 543 miles from China. It is claimed only by these two (along with Taiwan), and they have confronted each other over it in the past repeatedly, especially in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
The current confrontation began in early April, when China dispatched two non-military ships to prevent Chinese fishermen in the shoal from being arrested by the Philippines. The fishing boats left but the government ships from both sides stayed put, creating a standoff that both sides reinforced later on.
After talks between the two sides collapsed in late April, Beijing used its economic influence—canceling tourist groups and quarantining fruit imports from the Philippines—to bring Manila back to the table. Commentary online and in China’s semi-official media, such as the nationalistic tabloid “Global Times,” called for applying even greater pressure.
Chinese Defense Minister Liang Guanglie (left) visited Manila and met with his Philippine counterpart Voltaire Gazmin on May 23.
But tensions began to subside by mid-May. Beijing lifted the quarantine on banana imports and Manila appointed an ambassador to China, filling a post that had been vacant throughout the standoff and for more than a year. In the highest-level official meeting to date, defense ministers Liang Guanglie and Voltaire Gazmin reaffirmed their commitment to restraint and a peaceful resolution of the standoff.
In early June, Beijing and Manila negotiated the withdrawal of all government ships that had been in the lagoon since late May. Last week, Philippine government vessels and Chinese fishing boats left the shoal to avoid Typhoon Butchoy, which was approaching the area.
Although the standoff remains unresolved, it’s not too early to draw some lessons for similar disputes. Such standoffs are likely to become even more common in future, given the large number of fishermen and the many competing plans by adjacent countries to explore hydrocarbon resources in waters subject to overlapping claims.
The first lesson from Scarborough is that disputants cling very firmly to their claims to territorial sovereignty and maritime rights. Despite removing vessels from the area, neither side has demonstrated any willingness to moderate its position, much less alter its claim. This means that trying to prevent future conflicts by pushing early to resolve underlying claims is likely to backfire.
To neutralize such standoffs, the focus should first be on reducing proximate causes. For example, even though it would not address the underlying dispute, a joint or multilateral fishing agreement could remove one major source of friction in the South China Sea.
The second lesson from Scarborough is that using civilian maritime law enforcement instead of its navy to assert claims is a key part of China’s strategy.
These vessels, most of which don’t appear to have any mounted weapons, are for establishing a presence, not fighting. They also limit the potential for escalation.
As General Ma Xiaotian, a deputy chief of staff in China’s army, stated in an interview at the end of May: “At the moment, we have still not prepared to use military force to go defend [our waters]. If we were to do so, it would be as a last resort. Now we are still conducting bilateral talks, using diplomatic means and some civilian means to resolve the conflict. This way is the best.” As China continues to expand the fleets of its maritime law enforcement agencies, known as the “five dragons,” Beijing has a distinct advantage in the contest to maintain a presence in disputed waters.
Finally, Scarborough shows us how Washington handles these disputes. The Obama administration walked a fine line between supporting its ally and maintaining neutrality (as it repeatedly emphasized) in the sovereignty debate. The U.S. pledged to honor the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty with the Philippines but didn’t specify whether the treaty covered the shoal. Washington urged the claimants to pursue their claims peacefully while quietly supporting the drafting of a broader and more robust code of conduct for preventing future confrontations.
At present, the situation at Scarborough appears to be moving toward a tactical resolution. The June agreement to withdraw government vessels from inside the shoal’s lagoon was an important first step; it demonstrated that mutual disengagement is possible. The typhoon provided political cover for the removal of more ships.
Moreover, Manila and Beijing have clearly sought to lower the political temperature while working out an agreement. As the Chinese ambassador to the Philippines stated in a recent speech, “both sides should demonstrate political wisdom to meet each other halfway.” That may be the most important lesson to be learned.
Mr. Fravel is associate professor of Political Science and member of the Security Studies Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is the author of “Strong Borders, Secure Nation: Conflict and Cooperation in China’s Territorial Disputes” (Princeton, 2008).