“We don’t need surveillance vessels, we need the navy”: the Standoff at Scarborough Shoal

Just as analysts pronounce all is quiet on the South China Sea front, along comes this spanner in the works — easily the most serious incident since the height of the tensions last year:

The Philippines’ largest warship was engaged in a tense standoff with Chinese surveillance vessels Wednesday at a disputed South China Sea shoal, after the ship attempted to arrest Chinese fishermen but was blocked by the surveillance craft.

The “warship” in question is the BRP Gregorio del Pilar, the former US coastguard cutter transferred to the Philippines Navy last year and commissioned in December. That the Philippines is already making “good” use of it does not bode well for the future. But back to the incident:

The current standoff began Sunday when a Philippine navy surveillance plane sighted eight Chinese fishing vessels anchored in a lagoon at Scarborough, the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs said [. . .]

On Tuesday, Filipino sailors from the warship boarded the Chinese vessels for an inspection, discovering large amounts of illegally collected coral, giant clams and live sharks inside the first boat, the department said in a statement.

Two Chinese maritime surveillance ships, identified as Zhonggou Haijian 75 and Zhonggou Haijian 84, later approached and positioned themselves between the Philippine warship and the Chinese fishing vessels “thus preventing the arrests of the erring Chinese fishermen,” the statement said.

Philippine Foreign Affairs spokesman Raul Hernandez said Wednesday that the situation at the shoal “has not changed as of this morning. There’s a standoff.”

The big 5 Chinese news portals all have the story on their front page, though there is some variation in prominence. NetEase has it in the prime “cover photo” position (the photo above), accompanied by the caption: “Philippines Navy arrests Chinese fishermen at gunpoint at Scarborough Island”, which links to a gallery of photos related to the incident. Phoenix is keeping it among the big headlines at the top, and the other three have let it slip down into the top layer of small headlines.

As far as i can see from my cursory readings, the news that the Philippines has ruled out the use of force and agreed to resolve the situation diplomatically has not been widely reported yet in China.

The top few comments from the 35,000-strong thread attached to NetEase’s photo gallery:

We don’t need surveillance vessels, we need navy vessels (administrator, won’t you please have just enough conscience to display my comment?) [8,495 recommends]

Using maritime surveillance vessels for coastal defence, China really is unique. [5205]

Who does Scarborough Shoal really belong to? Since it’s ours, why are we being so restrained? [3698]

[. . .]

After I read this I was angry at first, but then I thought: if it’s this hard for me to find a place to rest my body, if I’ll work for a lifetime and still not afford a snail’s home to keep the wind and rain out, every day suffering high prices yet not being able to eat anything safely, stress levels that make me think about suicide every day, can’t afford to see a doctor, can’t afford a house, don’t dare consume,,,,,,,,,,,,,,fearing that what money I can save won’t feed a family…. What do I care who owns the South China Sea, whether Little Japan gets given the Diaoyu Islands? [1231]

In the world outside China, the use of China Maritime Surveillance, rather than the PLA Navy, is seen as a key part of China’s strategy in the South Sea: making sure they’re civilian law enforcement agencies rather than the Navy demonstrates that China already exercises jurisdiction, where it actually doesn’t. The top comments reflect a lack of appreciation for, or more likely a lack of awareness of, that strategy.

Also interesting to see a strong expression of apathy getting a gig among the top comments. It is my hypothesis that when I do my offline polling later this year, I will find this to be the mainstream majority Chinese view of the South China Sea disputes.

Censorship appears to be minimal on this topic, too, and it’s probably not as a result of the military’s much-vaunted “rising” engagement with public debate, judging by this top comment over on Phoenix‘s discussion thread:

Why isn’t the PLA Navy protecting our territory? [8812]

…or this, sitting in 5th position on this separate 73,000-strong (and rapidly growing, even at 2.45am) NetEase thread:

Our warships are all fake, all that [military] expenditure’s gone to Moutai. [4119]

It should be noted that this has been an utterly extraordinary day in Chinese domestic politics, with Bo Xilai, until recently the high-profile Party Secretary of Chongqing, officially suspended from the Politburo and placed in the hands of judicial authorities pending an investigation for “serious breaches of discipline”, and his wife, Gu Kailai officially named as the prime suspect in a murder case. In fact, a Chinese friend has suggested that it might be a very bad time for the Philippines to try to play hardball, since the Party might want to divert attention from the domestic scandal by making a move in the South China Sea. However, the Party appears to be mobilising all its media resources towards publicising the Bo Xilai scandal, which would suggest just the opposite – the domestic pressure on the CCP government to use force against the Philippines will be lessened due to people’s attention being primarily focused on Bo Xilai’s disgrace.

One could even imagine a rather hilarious inversion of the all-too-often-invoked (in relation to China at least) theory of diversionary military adventurism, in which ordering the news to be dominated by the Bo Xilai scandal was a tactical decision by the government aimed at diverting people’s attention away from the South Sea standoff. That is not the case of course, because the CCP is not suppressing coverage of the standoff, but i think it illustrates the point that there’s no evidence to my knowledge of the CCP state ever having used that tactic.

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“Their bottom line is Beijing’s 2nd Ring Road”: reactions to the Philippines Navy – Chinese fishing boat incident

[Updated October 25 – see bottom of post].

From the Global Times this morning: Philippine warship rams Chinese fishing boat in South China Sea, Filipino Dept of Defense says apology already issued to China.

An incident has occurred between China and the Philippines in the South China Sea. On October 18, a Filipino gunboat rammed a large Chinese fishing boat that was towing 25 smaller boats near Liyue [Reed] Bank.

In fact, the Filipino boat didn’t ram the large Chinese fishing boat, but rather became entangled [en] in – read: deliberately cut – the ropes of the 25 small boats, and confiscated them. No one was hurt, but China is now demanding the unconditional return of the 25 boats.

The story had actually been reported yesterday evening by the GT and Phoenix on the basis of foreign agency reports, but at that point they were using the less sensational term “collide with” (pengzhuang 碰撞) rather than “ram” (zhuangji 撞击) in the headline.

A pattern seems to be emerging in the recent treatment of South China Sea-related stories. Phoenix News is again paying the most attention, currently running the incident in the #1 lead headline story position, with Netease and Sina also running it on their front pages, but much further down, among the hundreds of normal-sized links.

Netease certainly seems to be into the spirit of sensationalism, running with the juicy “Filipino patrol boat rams Chinese fishing boat” [zh] line. The story may well have been further up among the headlines earlier in the day, because it is on Netease that the biggest and most interesting discussion [zh] has taken place so far, with nearly 2000 comments and more than 65,000 participants – and the latter figure has shot up by about 15,000 in just the last hour.

This is good to see. The Philippines’ shameless-whore nature has come out – I’ll ram you on purpose, then play completely innocent. Accidental? This is a case of testing China’s bottom line – if you don’t retaliate this time, I’ll go further next time. Foreign Ministry, let’s see how you react this time, you couldn’t possibly just fart and let it go, could you? [11,020]

Do the Foreign Ministry and Ministry of Defense have anything to say? [7007]

Our Foreign Ministry is currently deciding whether to express regret, condemn or strongly condemn, based on the degree of fermentation of interest from netizens . . . no, that won’t do, just send China’s magical, brave and utterly incomparable chengguan over to discuss the matter with the Philippines . . . you know [6424]

Fuck, hurry up and denounce, I strongly demand that they be denounced to death, fuck [6205]

[ . . . ]

Actually we could make some “tiny” incidents happen, then issue “sincere” apologies, but we don’t have the guts [3075]

[ . . . ]

Calling ourselves a righteous country, being bullied everywhere, apologizing is just lip-service, compulsory, weak and cowardly Chinese nation, when will you step up? [4319]

Actually, the Philippines is now denying [en] that it even apologized:

“No apologies were necessary and none was given,” the Foreign Affairs chief [Alberto del Rosario] said in a statement.

After going through the top-rated comments in the above Netease discussion, I looked at the most recent comments as they flowed in at a rate of several per minute, and in came this sardonic exchange:

Commenter 1 (Heilongjiang):  The deliberate ramming just one side of things – isn’t it more important that the Philippines Navy was violating China’s territorial waters?

Commenter 2 (Sichuan): No, their [Beijing leaders’] bottom line is Beijing’s Second Ring Road.

Oh dear. I actually feel sorry for Jiang Yu and the Foreign Ministry.

=========

UPDATE 25/10: Over the weekend NetEase managed to stir-fry the issue even further by translating a Filipino newspaper article taunting Chinese diplomacy for being a “toothless tiger” [zh], discussion of which prompted 4840 comments, with a staggering 275,000 participants weighing in. The top comments all expressed agreement with the Filipino article, along a spectrum from bitter to hearty (“The Filipino media has given voice to exactly what ordinary Chinese people are thinking”).

Although the story’s source is specified as Xinhuanet, the source link is to the page’s own URL, and I can find no trace of it on any other news sites, including Xinhua’s. This raises the question as to what hidden agendas NetEase might have for pushing the story where its competitors have not, but without in-depth research into the company’s ownership and control structure i’d be getting out of my depth there.