China and the Philippines took one step further on Wednesday in their ongoing military face-off over the Scarborough Reef, known by the Chinese as Huangyan Island and by the Filipino as Panatag Shoal.
The Beijing and Manila governments once again summoned each other's ambassadors, a measure that is intended to signal displeasure but is less radical than the recalling of ambassadors by their own government.
The Philippines first summoned China's ambassador, Ma Keqing, last Wednesday. China in turn did the same last Sunday, but the Philippines sent a lower-ranking diplomat, Alex Chua, to meet with representatives from the Chinese foreign ministry.
That happened after Filipino president Benigno Aquino III took the unusual step of voicing doubts about his government's envoy to Beijing, Domingo Lee. Aquino questioned Ambassador Lee's abilities, saying he was appointed a year ago, and the considerations were different. Now, you have the Scarborough Shoal incident, and there are other issues. Does he possess the necessary skills to be able to help us navigate this treacherous water at this point in time?
The standoff began when the Philippines' largest warship, the Gregorio del Pilar, a former U.S. coast guard vessel, intercepted eight Chinese fishing boats anchored in the lagoon at the contested shoal last Tuesday.
Armed Filipino marines then boarded the Chinese vessels but soon returned to their own ship. However, they took photos of what the Filipino government calls evidence of illegal fishing and coral poaching before leaving.
Two Chinese maritime surveillance vessels arrived afterwards. Although the Gregorio del Pilar left the shoal last Thursday, it was replaced by a smaller vessel. The Chinese fishing vessels, which China claims were there to seek shelter from a storm, have already left.
The two Chinese maritime surveillance vessels and the single Filipino coast guard ship remain anchored at the shoal.
Both governments have stated that they seek a diplomatic and peaceful solution to the dispute.
The Philippines has said that it is prepared to take the issue before an international body, the International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea, but this would require both parties to appear together.
Liu Weimin, a representative of the Chinese foreign ministry, shot down that idea by telling foreign journalists that Huangyan Island is an immovable part of China's territory, there doesn't exist a problem of presenting the issue before the International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea.
Liu also blasted the Filipino government, saying high ranking officials in the Philippines have consistently given comments to mislead the public, saying that the Philippines have sovereignty over the islands. This goes against historical reality and the law.
Huangyan is a traditional fishing grounds for Chinese fishermen. Since ancient times Chinese fishing vessels have operated in the areas around Huangyan island, said Liu. The Chinese government bases its sovereignty claim on use of the area by Chinese fisherman since the 13th century.
The Filipino Foreign Affairs Department commented that a claim by itself, including a historical claim, could not be a basis for acquiring a territory.
The Philippines states that its fishermen had been using the area even before Spanish explorers arrived in the 16th century. Furthermore it says the shoal falls within the 200 nautical mile, or 370 kilometer, Exclusive Economic Zone defined by the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).
China responded that UNCLOS states that countries can create a 200 nautical mile EEZ from their coastline, but have no right to harm the sovereignty of other states in doing so. Using UNCLOS to change sovereign jurisdictions is against international law and against the nature of the convention itself.
China asserts that the Philippines never raised an objection to China's sovereign jurisdiction anddevelopment of the islands before 1997, and on numerous occasions expressed that the islands lay outside of the Philippines' territory; maps printed in 1981 and 1984 by the Philippines reflect that the islands lay outside of their territory.
However, Philippine nationalists note that maps printed by Spain and the U.S. in the 18th century had already included Scarborough Shoal, then named Panacot Shoal, within Philippine territory.
The shoal is located in the South China Sea about 220 kilometers, or 137 miles, west of the Philippines' main island of Luzon.
Disputes between China and other Southeast Asian states over past years have drawn concern throughout the region and abroad. The South China Sea is not only the location of major international shipping routes between East Asia and the Middle East; it may also hold vast amounts of underexploited precious hydrocarbons, fishing stocks, and minerals.
Experts such as Robert Kaplan, author of Monsoon, and defense analysts Toshi Yoshihara and James Holmes, authors of Red Star Over the Pacific, describe the South China Sea as a deeply strategic location with the potential to emerge as a major source of conflict in the future, especially as China and other Asian nations continue to expand their military forces and seek further economic opportunities abroad.
The Scarborough Shoal dispute continues amid the backdrop of Filipino war games with its ally, the United States. The two nations are holding exercises near Reed Bank, the location of another dispute between Chinese and Filipino vessels back in March 2011. The recent exercises, involving thousands of allied soldiers, include scenarios for taking back Filipino oil rigs seized by hostile forces.
According to Major Emmauel Garcia of the Philippine army, no country in the Pacific or anywhere in the world should be concerned about the exercise, because this exercise is not directed toward any nation.
China's military is busy making preparations to send a large fleet of ships to participate in exercises with Russia in the Yellow Sea the coming weekend.