Xinhua Insight: True story behind Huangyan Island dispute in South China Sea
by Xinhua News Net

BEIJING, May 9 (Xinhua) -- The controversy over a tiny island in the South China Sea has intensified, making it the most serious standoff between China and the Philippines in the sea in recent years.


In early April, the Philippines sent a warship to harass 12 Chinese fishing vessels which sailed into the waters of Huangyan Island to shelter from bad weather.


According to media reports, the Philippines has also notified China on its readiness to raise the issue of the sovereignty of Huangyan Island to international arbitration. In addition, it tried to rename the island and remove the signs and monuments related to China.




Huangyan Island, a group of reefs and islets about 550 sea miles away from the Hainan Island in south China, has long provided a perfect shelter for fishing ships from nearby islands and the mainland of China.


"For many generations we have fished in this water," said Ke Weixiu, a fisherman and native from the port of Tanmen in Hainan.


However, since the 1990s, Chinese fishermen have repeatedly been harassed by Philippine warships.


According to the fishery department under the Ministry of Agriculture, four Chinese fishing boats were intercepted by the Philippine navy in the waters around the island from January to March in 1998 and 51 fishermen on board were detained for about six months.


In May 1999, a Chinese fishing boat was rammed by a Philippine warship and sunk, according to the ministry.


From 2000 to 2011, at least 32 fishing ships, with 439 fishermen on board, were chased, robbed or detained by the Philippine navy.


The latest event occurred in April. Xu Detan, captain of one of the 12 fishing ships harassed, has not recovered from the shocking encounter with the Philippine navy even three weeks after returning home.


"A Philippine warship blocked our entry to the lagoon where we docked our ships," Xu recalled. "We had no choice but to wait inside as they were armed."


On April 10, nine Philippine soldiers, on a inflatable, boarded Xu's ship with seven of them carrying rifles.


"They turned off the radio and satellite positioning system on my ship, searched the whole ship and took pictures while the 16 members of the crew, including me, were standing on the deck under the hot sun for four hours."


Two Chinese Marine Surveillance ships conducting routine patrols in the area later came to the fishermen's rescue and helped Xu and his colleagues return home safely.


"Usually a fishing trip will take 50 days but this time we were forced to cut it short to 25 days," he said.




Until 1997, the Philippines never disputed China's jurisdiction and development of the island. But recently the Philippines has played tricks and triggered disturbances, as well as claiming the island as theirs.


The Philippines says it is the nearest country to Huangyan Island, so it claims the island belongs to it on this premise.


"This theory based on geographic distance for territorial sovereignty has absolutely no basis in international law and judicial practice," according to Zhang Haiwen, deputy director of China Institute for Marine Affairs under State Oceanic Administration.


"There is no such principle in international law that determines territorial ownership by geographic distance," Zhang said, noting that many countries around the world have territories which are far away from their mainland and much closer to other countries.


"For example, the British Channel Islands are less than 12 nautical miles off the French coastline at their closest proximity. Some French territorial islands stretch across the Atlantic, lie close to the Canadian coastline in north America and even in the Pacific. But none of these islands have territorial disputes due to geographic distance," said Zhang.


"The world map would be totally redrawn if the Philippines' theory was upheld," Zhang said.


The Philippines claims that Huangyan Island is in the country's 200-nautical miles-wide Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) and says its claim is in line with the United Nations Convention on the Law Of the Sea (UNCLOS).


Liu Feng, a researcher with National Institute for South China Sea Studies, said that the UNCLOS has neither the articles to change a country's land territory, nor does it have the authority to allow a country to take another country's territory by the right of the EEZ and the continental shelf.


The Philippines claims that the United States controlled Huangyan Island, thus it has inherited the island's sovereignty and jurisdiction from the U.S. military.


"U.S. forces in the Philippines used Huangyan Island as a shooting range, but the U.S. has never claimed sovereignty over the island. How could the Philippines inherit it? It's ridiculous," said Zhang Haiwen.


"All the Philippine rhetoric is untenable in terms of international law," said Liu Feng. "So the Philippines wants to take the initiative to stir things up by sending warships to harass Chinese fishermen in Huangyan Island waters and escalate tensions."




If armed conflict erupts between China and the Philippines over the Huangyan Island dispute, the interests of the two countries and their peoples will be greatly damaged.


"Sovereignty issues of the South China Sea islands do not make up the entire China-Philippines relationship," said Li Guoqiang, deputy director of the Research Center for Chinese Borderland History and Geography of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, a government think tank.


As a responsible nation, it is China's choice to resolve conflicts with other nations via diplomatic channels, Li said.


China has remained restrained and is not in favor of armed conflict. In the short run, besides diplomatic efforts, China's major strategy is to dispatch surveillance and fishery administration ships.


"Such a practice not only reflects that China considers the Huangyan Island issue as an internal affair and conveys China's not-to-waver attitude toward territory and sovereignty problems, but also shows its wish of not resorting to force of arms to resolve the issue," said Tong Xiaoling, China's ambassador to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).


As for the attempt of the Philippines to submit the Huangyan Island issue to the "international court," Zhang Haiwen said it is a trick of the Philippines, aiming to internationalize the issue.


It is completely unnecessary and legally groundless to bring it to the so-called "international court," Zhang said.


Actually, China submitted a formal statement to the United Nations in 2006 in line with the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, Zhang said.


The announcement clarifies that any significant disputes involving territory, sovereignty and maritime demarcation will not accept international arbitration that has binding force.


In other words, except that China and other related parties reached consensus, such disputes should not be submitted to international judicial bodies, he said.


According to the UN convention, China's statement was not only submitted to the UN Secretary General, but also has been published on the official website of the UN Division for Ocean Affairs and the Law of the Sea.


Zhang said it is due to ignorance or making trouble out of nothing for the Philippine foreign minister to repeatedly propose to submit the Huangyan Island issue to the so-called "international court."


Li Guoqiang said, "Under the circumstance that their attempt to gain support of the United States and the ASEAN member states had failed and the proposed international arbitration became hopeless, the Philippines should give up misjudging the situation and return to the bargaining table as soon as possible."


Analysts suggest that the Chinese side make all-round preparations on the issue, as the Philippine side, regardless of the consequence, has constantly escalated the issue, and repeatedly breached the Sino-Philippine consensus about not expanding and complicating the situation.




It has been a month since April 10 when the Philippines stirred up the territorial dispute. Qu Xing, director of the China Institute of International Studies (CIIS), said how the Huangyan Island dispute will develop entirely depends on the Philippines.


"If the Philippine side withdraws its vessels from the sea area around Huangyan Island, stops harassing Chinese fishing and government vessels, the situation will improve. If the Philippine side continues its wrong acts, the situation may only escalate to become more complicated and persistent," said Qu.


Currently, the Philippine side continues to miscalculate the situation and insists on strategic negotiations, making it hard to forecast an optimistic short-term outlook, said Dong Manyuan, the CIIS vice-director.


Dong said, "the Philippine side's miscalculation stems from its wrong perception of the possible strategic effects of the United States' strategy to return to Asia, of how much support it will get from the Mutual Defense Treaty with the U.S., of China's resolve to safeguard its territorial integrity, and whether other southeast Asian countries that claim sovereignty over parts of the South China Sea will act with it."


Analysts say the prospect of the situation is bleak because the Philippines, out of political needs both domestically and internationally, is unlikely to reverse its approach to the incident in the short term.


Dong said China has been improving diplomatic efforts and has maintained its position of seeking diplomatic solutions to the current situation, asking the Philippine side to correct its wrong position, drop unreasonable demands, and return to a right course as soon as possible.


However, the Philippine side will definitely meet serious consequences if it is bent on challenging China's sovereignty bottom line, he said.

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