China’s Scarborough Shoal plans unclear
Sources disagree on whether China plans to build an environmental monitoring station on Scarborough Shoal, pictured, a South China Sea territory at the center of a three-way dispute that includes the Philippines and Taiwan.
The Hainan Daily newspaper quoted Sansha Communist Party Secretary Xiao Jie, administrator of China’s South China Sea island claims, as saying the Chinese intended to build environmental monitoring stations on six island reefs, including Scarborough Shoal, The Japan Times newspaper reported in March 2017. If true, the station would represent the first permanent structure for the shoal and demonstrate a high level of assertiveness by the Chinese in the disputed territory.
Within days of Xiao’s statements — and as the Philippines stood firm on resisting any Chinese assertion over the shoal — China’s Foreign Ministry denied the reports.
“China places great importance on the preservation of the South China Sea’s ocean ecology, this is certain,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told a daily news briefing, Reuters reported. “According to the relevant bodies in China, the reports you mention that touch upon building environmental monitoring stations on Scarborough Shoal are mistaken; these things are not true.”
China, the Philippines and Taiwan each claim Scarborough Shoal. The Chinese seized it in 2012 and have continued to block the area, including a lagoon rich in fish stocks, according to The Japan Times.
Tensions in the South China Sea had somewhat eased prior to this announcement. Now, analysts say, a move like this by China could hurt any recently improved relations it has with the Philippines.
“While [Philippines President Rodrigo] Duterte wants to shelve the disputes there, any Chinese moves may corner him as well,” Zhang Baohui, director of the Centre for Asian Pacific Studies at Lingnan University in Hong Kong, told The Japan Times. “He will be facing mounting domestic pressure to react to China’s latest moves.”
The Hague ruled in favor of the Philippines, thereby invalidating claims by China, in July 2016 on a separate South China Sea dispute between the two countries. China continues to reject the ruling. Since then, however, it has allowed Filipino fishermen to return to the area as Duterte called for closer ties with China.
“The Scarborough Shoal is clearly the next flashpoint,” Richard Javad Heydarian, a political analyst and assistant professor at De La Salle University in Manila, told The Japan Times. “Within the People’s Liberation Army, our understanding is that they’re determined to incorporate the contested shoal into the strategic triangle in the South China Sea. But I think the political leadership is still undecided.”