At daybreak on April 10, the area of Huangyan Island in the South China Sea was a scene of calm sea and clear sky. The Qiong-Qionghai 03026 and a dozen other Chinese fishing boats, from Tanmen in Hainan , were fishing inside the lagoon as usual. Suddenly, a Philippine Navy ship showed up at the mouth of the lagoon. It blocked the Chinese fishing boats from leaving while releasing a speedboat to board some of them. At 11am, soldiers boarded Chen Zebo's boat, the Qiong-Qionghai 03026. Chen, who spoke no English, protested in Chinese: "Huangyan Island is China's! China's!" But the verbal protest did not stop the soldiers from going through their belongings and taking photos of the surroundings. But Chen refused to sign a document that he thought was an admission of guilt for "illegal fishing". Three other Chinese fishing boats were similarly harassed.
What transpired later was widely reported by the media. The key to understanding this complex incident lies in who has sovereignty over Huangyan Island. The Philippines has claimed that since Huangyan Island is far from China but closer to the Philippines, it should be a Philippine"territory".
True, Huangyan Island is closer to the Philippines, yet geographical proximity has never been a principle of determining territorial ownership in international law. Back in 1935, the Chinese government announced the names of 132 islands, reefs, shoals and sands in the South China Sea which included Huangyan Island.
The Chinese government renamed the island twice, in 1947 and in 1983, settling on the official name of Huangyan Island. The Chinese government has also on many occasions approved requests for scientific survey and exploration of the island by scientists and amateur radio enthusiasts. Huangyan Island does not belong to the Philippines. This is not only a conclusion derived from a series of international treaties defining the scope of Philippine territory, but also the declared official position of the Philippine government over theyears.
Huangyan Island was marked outside the Philippines' territorial limits in the official Philippine maps published in 1981 and 1984. The map published in 2006 showed no changes. In 1990, the then Philippine ambassador to Germany wrote to German radio enthusiasts stating clearly that "the Scarborough Reef or Huangyan Dao does not fall within the territorial sovereignty of the Philippines". This position was reaffirmed in documents issued by the Philippine Department of Environment and Natural Resources, as well as correspondence
in 1994 between the Philippine amateur radio association and the American amateur radio association. Such a situation remained unchanged until 1997, when the Philippines claimed "sovereignty" over Huangyan Island on the grounds that it lies within its exclusive economic zone.
It was not until 2009 that the Philippines included Huangyan Island in its regime of islands with its amended Archipelagic Baselines Law. The Philippines did not even make up its mind as to what Huangyan Island was to be called until just a few days ago. Such behaviour can hardly be considered serious. By repudiating its long-held policies and commitments, and seeking to unilaterally change the status quo, the Philippines revealed its true colours.
Recently, the Philippines used gunboats to harass unarmed Chinese fishermen, made war-mongering remarks, called off diplomatic dialogue with China, and threatened to launch demonstrations around the world. Its actions run counter to its professed desire to settle the dispute by peaceful means. Huangyan Island is a Chinese territory; to Chen Zebo and his fellow fishermen, it belongs to their "ancestral sea". Generations of Chinese fishermen have worked here, and will continue to do so in future. In a sense, Huangyan Island is an inalienable part of Chinese civilisation. The Chinese government is duty-bound to protect Chinese fishermen operating in the traditional fishing area from violation of the person and property, from disruption of normal production, and from the humiliation of human dignity.
China is still willing to work with the Philippines to resolve the dispute peacefully through diplomatic means, so as to restore peace and tranquility in the waters of Huangyan Island as early as possible and allow Chinese fishermen to operate there in a safe and smooth fashion.
Deng Zhonghua is director general of the Department of Boundary and Ocean Affairs of China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs
(originally published on South China Morning Post, Saturday, May 12, 2012)