Explaining away the current tension between China and The Philippines by way of a dispute over maritime law does not do justice to the complexity of the situation. The dispute could easily have escalated in the past, or be silenced diplomatically as has been the norm, but this time the hostilities are close to boiling over, the result of an ongoing territorial waters dispute that has gripped China and other countries on the South China Sea for years. The focus of the confrontation between the navies of China and The Philippines is the Scarborough Shoal, a group of tiny uninhabited islands and rocks in the middle of the open sea, known as Huangyan in Chinese and claimed as sovereign by both sides.
The spat began over simple fishing rights, but has quickly spun out of control. It all started more than one month ago, when Filipino warships detained a Chinese fishing ship and subsequently released it when the Chinese Navy arrived at the scene. The ships remain on station, while negotiations have stalled. Unsatisfied with the outcome, Beijing has decided to halt its touristic tours to The Philippines and has even imposed restrictive measures, masquerading as sanitary concerns, against the importation of Filipino pineapples, Demonstrators campaigned for the defense of national territory in front of the Chinese embassy in Manila, while China declared itself to be ready for “any kind of escalation,” a thinly veiled threat of military action. Both countries have warned their citizens residing in the other to be prudent and respectful of local laws.
While it is difficult to determine which country has a stronger claim to the islands, there may be specific reasons behind the timing of the recent escalation. There are no new dangers around the shoal, and fishing disputes are usually considered a matter of routine. The Scarborough Shoal is not nearly as important as the Paracel or Spratly island chains, although it could serve as a platform to reach them, or as a control point for oil trade from the Middle East and access to vital gas resources in the South China Sea. Still, these particulars are well documented and negotiation has always prevailed over confrontation in the past.
It could be that some internal frictions are projecting their shadows offshore, to distract the public attention with more explosive issues, and China has its fair share of shadowy problems. The hazy details of recent incidents like the cases of Bo Xilai and Chen Guangcheng have been hotly discussed, but no credible conclusions have emerged. The turmoil at the heart of the ruling class may be worse than it appears. We may only be seeing the tip of the iceberg, and the conflict with The Philippines could be a way of keeping us from seeing the rest.
The date of the next CCP Congress, traditionally held in October, has yet to be announced. Its executive outcome may already be known, with Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang at the helm, but the coalition of power behind this choice is still to be formed. The power struggles are tinged with a ideological brush: reformists versus conservatives, the young cadres versus the old guard, Maoists versus Sino-liberalists, but each of these positions reflects ambitions, sometimes honorable, sometimes personal.
The outstanding growth over the last three decades has created much wealth and a plurality of interests that the establishment may be finding hard to control. A glance at the roles of SOEs, local governments, or national banks is enough to understand how much the country’s cohesion is now in danger. These differences are not new, but the difficulty in conciliating them within a single entity, the CCP, is unprecedented. If it is hard to rule the animosity within the country, then to transfer the tension somewhere is a handy shortcut. Even if China’s reaction to the Filipino provocation may seem a bit exaggerated, it shows that the military can always play a role if politics fail.