Panatag Shoal – also known as Bajo de Masinloc to the people of Zambales and as Scarborough Shoal in international maps – may well become a flashpoint in the ongoing war of words between China and the United States.
Panatag is a piece of rock in the South China Sea (SEA) about 230 kilometers west of Zambales. It is, therefore, well within the 370-kilometer Exclusive Economic Zone of the Philippines under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). We do not own it but we have the right to develop its economic resources under UNCLOS.
But Panatag is also within a wide area of the South China Sea enclosed by a nine-dash line claimed by China as part of its historic sovereign territory. China has a name for the island – Huangyan.
The US – like the rest of the world – does not recognize China’s nine-dash claim. It regards the whole of the South China Sea as international territory open to navigation by ships of all nations. Planes of all nations may fly over the entire sea.
Last Wednesday, the USS Hopper sailed within 22 kilometers of Panatag, part of the US government’s regular assertion of freedom of navigation and overflight in the South China Sea. China’s navy ordered the US vessel to withdraw and China’s foreign ministry warned that it would take “necessary measures” to protect its sovereignty.
As in all previous encounters, nothing is expected to result from this latest incident. The US will keep sending its warships to the South China Sea, asserting freedom of navigation in what it considers international waters. China in turn will keep warning all US and other ships to stay away from its claimed sovereign territory.
As long as these encounters do not get any further than this, we and the other surrounding nations have nothing to worry about. But one of these days, some trigger-happy soldier or sailor or pilot on either side will fire a shot, which will be answered by a bigger shot. And open warfare breaks out that may quickly involve other nations in the area – the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Brunei, especially, which also have claims to various islands in the South China Sea.
Panatag, site of the latest US-China incident, is of special interest to us. When the United Nations Arbitral Court in the Hague issued its ruling in 2016 rejecting China’s nine-dash-line claim, it declared Panatag as a common fishing ground of many nations and should remain so. This, plus the fact that it is within the Philippines’ Exclusive Economic Zone, gives us greater claim than any other nation to its economic resources.
Today, the biggest source of fear in our part of the world is the threat of nuclear attack against the US posed by North Korea and the counter-threat posed by the US. But there is equal fear of a mistake shooting every time US and China forces face each other in the South China Sea.
The problem is there is no solution in sight, because China will not give up its claim of sovereignty and the US will not give up its assertion of freedom of navigation and its readiness to defend it.