Planting of Philippine flag on South China Sea shoal fails

China's navy conducting drills in the South China Sea. 2013. Asitimes / Wikimedia Commons

UPDATE: ASEAN Today notes the latest eyewitness accounts which have disputed that the Philippine flag was not planted successfully. The article has since been amended to reflect this dispute of the events. – Editor (15 June 2016, 12:00 noon)

By Loke Hoe Yeong

Members of a Filipino nationalist group attempted to plant the Philippine flag on a key disputed islet in the South China Sea, in celebration of the Philippine Independence Day. They were chased away by China’s coastguard. A dispute is ongoing as to whether the flag was indeed planted successfully, even if for a short while.

The attempt by the Kalayaan Atin Ito (Our Freedom) group to plant the flag of the Philippines on Scarborough Shoal on Sunday (12 June) appeared to be inspired by what president-elect Rodrigo Duterte had himself vowed during his election campaign to do. Duterte had the Spratly Islands in mind though, different from Scarborough Shoal.

Scarborough Shoal is also a bone of contention for Rodrigo Duterte, who had sworn not to relinquish the Philippines’ right to sail there freely.

ASEAN-China: solving disputes through peaceful means?

The latest flag-planting attempt on Sunday came on the eve of an ASEAN-China meeting, ironically one that was convened to discuss the South China Sea conflict. The foreign ministers of China and of all the ASEAN member states have gathered in the city of Yuxi, in Yunnan province, China.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi has been speaking at the summit of the benefits of good China-ASEAN relations, and how all parties are working out the challenges related to the overlapping South China Sea claims. They have agreed to boost cooperation and solve the South China Sea disputes “through peaceful means”, China’s state broadcaster CCTV reported.

The meeting also seeks to prepare the way for an upcoming China-ASEAN Summit – which involves heads-of-state and heads-of-government – to be held in Laos later in September this year.

“Twenty-five years of cooperation between China and ASEAN not only brought enormous benefit to 2 billion people”, Wang Yi said. “It also made important contribution to regional peace and stability. We should further our relationship on a strategic level, with long-term goals. We should expand the scope of our cooperation, and manage our differences in a proper manner.”

Tense moments

Scarborough Shoal, a group of tiny outcrops 120 miles west of Subic Bay, was seized by China in 2012 after a three-month standoff with the Philippines. The team on board a Philippine navy ship had earlier tried to arrest a group of Chinese fishermen, who had allegedly been caught trying to collect corals, giant clams and live sharks illegal. However, the Philippine navy was blocked by Chinese maritime surveillance ship. China scored a tactical victory and has since occupied the disputed outcrops.

Five Filipinos from the Kalayaan Atin Ito natonalist group had attempted to swim to the shoal, but were chased by Chinese coastguards, who sprayed them with water and tried to take their cameras and a bag which contained the flag of the Philippines.

Philippine authorities have declined to comment on the incident, but a spokesperson for the Chinese Foreign Ministry reaffirmed that “Scarborough Shoal has been China’s territory since ancient times.”

Qing dynasty-era claims?

These latest developments have come after a senior Singaporean figure in diplomatic circles came out to say that claimant countries involved in the South China Sea dispute should not underestimate the legality of China’s arguments.

George Yeo, the former foreign minister of Singapore and currently the chairman of the Hong Kong-based conglomerate Kerry Logistics, said that “China’s claims are not weak… I can understand the force of feelings from Southeast Asian countries but it would be a serious mistake to underestimate the legality of China’s claims and therefore underestimate their will.”

Yeo was speaking at a panel in the World Economic Forum on ASEAN held in Kuala Lumpur, in the lead-up to the annual Shangri-La Dialogue held a few days later in Singapore. Yeo’s remarks were regarded by observers as an attempt to cool down the temperature, on the part of the Chinese, in the lead-up to a confrontation between China and the US on the issue of the South China Sea at that security dialogue.

Yeo in fact cited Beijing’s assertions that its claims in the South China date back to the Qing Dynasty, and even went as far as to highlight that the claimant countries in Southeast Asia did not object at the point when China drew the controversial nine-dash line in the late 1940s to mark out a large swathe of the areas in the South China Sea for itself.

That is of course a controversial, if also questionable point of argument. Most of Southeast Asia in the late 1940s, in the immediate aftermath of World War II, were still colonies of Western powers. They were not in a position to stake their sovereign claims on the adjoining seas, unless of course that was also the position taken by their colonial administrators.

The late 1940s was also a tumultuous time of civil war in China. The nine-dash line, as well as its other incarnations as the ten- or eleven-dash lines, was initially drawn out by the nationalist government of the Republic of China, which eventually fled to the island of Taiwan. The communist government of the People’s Republic of China which took control over the mainland in 1949 nevertheless accepted the territorial claims as laid out by their predecessors.