As Kan Mizoguchi sailed out of Guangzhou to the cheers of a dockside crowd, his biggest worry was keeping his lunch down on the voyage ahead. He had no idea that he and his groupd of fellow amateur radio hobbyists would end up in the middle of a major territorial dispute between China and the Philippines.
Law of the Seize
Radio amateurs arouse latest South China Sea tension
By Andrew Sherry in Hong Kong with Rigoberto Tiglao in Manila
12 June 1997
Far Eastern Economic Review
(Copyright (c) 1997, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.)
As Kan Mizoguchi sailed out of Guangzhou to the cheers of a dockside crowd, his biggest worry was keeping his lunch down on the voyage ahead. He had no idea that he and his group of fellow amateur radio hobbyists would end up in the middle of a major territorial dispute between China and the Philippines.
“I was anxious about getting seasick and had with myself plenty of motionsickness pills along with dried codfish,” the 65-year-old retired Japanese industrialist recounts on his Internet World Wide Web page. “But fortunately nothing disturbing happened.”
Nothing disturbing, that is, until the two Chinese State Oceanic Administration ships carrying the group reached their destination: Scarborough Shoal, a scattering of volcanic rocks barely poking above the South China Sea, 215 kilometres west of the Philippine island of Luzon. That's when a pair of Philippine military reconnaissance jets came skimming overhead, according to members of the expedition. The next day, May 1, the first of four Philippine navy gunboats appeared.
The group cut short their trip at Chinese insistence two days later, but that wasn't the end of the story. Unwittingly, the radio amateurs had triggered one of the most serious confrontations in the South China Sea in years. Fuelled by political grandstanding in the Philippines, the conflict escalated all month, and on May 20 the Philippine navy detained 21 Chinese fishermen near the shoal.
“If this was an exercise in claim-building, the Philippines has not only trumped the Chinese but embarrassed them,” says Mark Valencia, a maritime specialist at the East-West Centre in Hawaii. “I don't expect the warships to set sail, but the war of words could get pretty hot.”
The reverberations go beyond the two countries. The Scarborough spat is a setback for Asean's strategy of resolving territorial disputes by temporarily shelving sovereignty issues and slowly building confidence. In fact, the Chinese accuse Manila of creating a new problem.
“This is very serious. The Philippines has brought the whole South China Sea dispute northward,” says a maritime expert in Shanghai who is generally regarded as a moderate. Unlike Chinese claims to the Spratly and Paracel islands, he argues, China's sovereignty over Huangyan Island, as it calls Scarborough, has never been challenged. Some international experts give weight to the Chinese claim.
For the Philippines, on the other hand, the amateur radio expedition looked like part of a pattern: a deliberate strategy by China to use nonmilitary means-from oil-exploration rigs to scientific research teams-to reinforce its claims and to gently probe its opponents' weaknesses. This time, the Philippines decided to push back. “Somebody has to stand up and say 'no' to the Chinese,” says Carolina Hernandez, president of the Institute for Strategic and Development Studies in Manila.
What's at stake is not the islands or rocks themselves, so much as the surrounding fishing grounds and possibly oil-rich seabed that come with them. Under the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, even a barren rock can command 12 surrounding nautical miles (22 kilometres) of territorial waters, while an island can carry a 200-nautical mile (370-kilometre) exclusive economic zone. Recognition of Scarborough as a Chinese island would take a huge bite out of the Philippines' own exclusive economic zone.
If Mizoguchi and his friends were pawns in the claim game, they were unwitting ones. Members of the expedition-made up of two Japanese, three Americans and six Chinese-say Scarborough Shoal is the second-most sought-after broadcasting spot in the world of amateur radio, after North Korea. The reason? Something called the DXCC, or Long-Distance Radio Century Club.
To make the coveted membership roll, DXers, as they call themselves, must make contact with fellow hams in at least 100 different countries. “Countries,” as defined by the rules of the game, can include certain islands, as long as they're far enough from the mainland. There were 328 recognized DX “countries” until last year, when Scarborough Shoal became number 329, instantly making it hot property in the eyes-or rather ears-of DX buffs.
“It's just a place that nobody has found before,” says expedition member Wayne Mills, an American who rushed into Albania to broadcast just months after the country opened its doors in 1991. Mizoguchi says he has been to Burma six times and to Bhutan twice in the past two years on “DXpeditions.”
When Mills, Mizoguchi and friends arrived they set up their two-way radio sets, fired up a generator, and started logging calls from other ham-radio operators. Each time a call came in they would exchange call signs, note signal strength, and go on to the next, logging more than 13,000 contacts in three days. Each caller was then able to notch one more point towards the Century Club.
It all sounds pretty harmless, but Manila had reason to see things otherwise. And the place the Filipinos first saw it, according to Foreign Ministry officials, was on the Internet, where an American DXer named Tim Totten was posting daily bulletins about the expedition's progress. The bulletins stated clearly that Scarborough Shoal, or Huangyan Island, was considered Chinese territory. The amateur radio governing body had assigned the reef a Chinese call sign-BS7H. When sovereignty disputes go to court, countries often submit scraps of circumstantial evidence like that to support their claims.
“It's a little worrisome that ham radio has gotten dragged into this thing,” says Totten, who like Mills was reached by telephone in the United States. “Especially when one of our points of emphasis is promoting international goodwill.”
Still, there were signs that China had a bigger agenda than simply promoting goodwill. The Chinese government paid “tens of thousands of dollars” for the boat charter, according to one Chinese organizer. The cheering dockside crowds in Guangzhou were also probably government-sponsored-amateur radio, legal in China only since 1992, hardly has a mass following there. And the expedition itself was led by 50-year-old Wang Xinmin, a former army radio operator.
The Philippines had reason to be nervous. In 1995, China built an outpost on the aptly named Mischief Reef, in a section of the Spratlys archipelago also claimed by the Philippines. Manila reacted with a howl of protest and managed to rally other Asean countries in criticizing the Chinese move. It's to avoid provoking that kind of reaction that China, some of its neighbours suspect, is now using more subtle means to reinforce its claims.
If so, it wouldn't be the first time. In 1992, China confounded Hanoi by leasing an exploration block in disputed waters off southern Vietnam to an American oil company, at a time when Hanoi was trying to improve relations with Washington. Around the same time, it set up a weather station in the Spratlys, claiming endorsement from the World Meteorological Association. Chinese archaeological expeditions to the Spratlys and Paracels have reported discoveries of Chinese artifacts.
China isn't the only one to underpin its claims with commerce; Malaysia, for example, built a tourist resort in the early 1990s on one of the Spratly islands it occupies. At the same time Vietnam established a fishing port on one island it holds. (Indonesia, Taiwan and Brunei also claim all or part of the Spratlys.)
But while all the Spratlys claimants, including China, have agreed over the past few years to avoid unilateral action that would complicate the situation further, China's neighbours don't think the regional superpower is keeping its word: In March of this year, China sent oil-exploration rigs into waters off central Vietnam, provoking a strong protest from Hanoi.
Beijing's need for the South China Sea is underpinned by two forces: oil and nationalism. Many geologists believe the sea floor around the Spratlys could hide vast stores of hydrocarbons, and China has fast-growing energy needs. The government has also staked some of its legitimacy on reversing the humiliations of the 19th century, when China lost Hong Kong to the British and the Diaoyu Islands to the Japanese-who call them the Senkakus. “Beijing can't be seen as giving up any more territory,” says J.N. Mak, director of the Maritime Institute of Malaysia.
Nonetheless, the Philippine reaction on Scarborough seems disproportionately strong. The Chinese maintain they're simply exercising control over territory they have long owned, and suspect Manila has been emboldened by Asean's growing solidarity over the South China Sea debate, the maritime expert in Shanghai says.
It may have been Philippine domestic politics, more than Asean solidarity, that turned Scarborough into a very public confrontation with China. In fact, the first nudge was gentle: the naval officers who landed on the shoal told the ham radio operators that they were inside the Philippines' exclusive economic zone, but they never-according to expedition members-ordered them to leave.
It was a group of Philippine congressmen who upped the ante in mid-May, riding out to the shoal aboard naval vessels and then posing for photos on the shoal under a Philippine flag. The next week, a navy patrol boat detained the Chinese fishermen about 11 kilometres from the shoal and impounded their vessel.
There are signs that the Philippine Foreign Affairs Department, which has been working to rebuild relations with China in the wake of the Mischief Reef incident, thinks the congressmen went too far. Oscar Valenzuela, the department spokesman, says the planting of a flag on Scarborough was not authorized by the government.
He has reason to distance the government from that move. The Philippines has not actually claimed the shoal, which lies just outside its published territorial baselines, as Philippine land. In fact, Manila's official position is that the shoal is within the Philippines' exclusive economic zone. By definition, this starts where territorial waters end.
“The Philippines has the sovereign right to explore and exploit the resources of the Scarborough Shoal,” said President Fidel Ramos in late May. “It is in the EEZ of the Philippines.” But this only raises the crucial question: Which country has the more legitimate claim, the one claiming the shoal is part of its territory or the other saying it's part of its EEZ?
China has claimed Huangyan Island as its territory in documents published in 1935, 1947 and 1983, and has reaffirmed them since. It says its ownership of the formation gives it -- not the Philippines -- the right to the surrounding waters. “The land dominates the sea is a basic principle of international law,” said the Chinese embassy in Manila. “Maritime rights and interests do not generate territorial sovereignty.”
Victor Prescott, professor emeritus of geography at the University of Melbourne, has written widely on boundary disputes. He says making the first claim is all-important. “If it went to court now, China appears to have a better claim,” he says.
But can a country claim a collection of barren rocks? Yes, according to the Law of the Sea Convention, at long as some of them-like those at Scarborough -- stay above the water line even at high tide. And Prescott notes that it's not uncommon for countries to try and claim that rocks they control are viable economic centres-fishing hubs-so they meet the Convention's definition of islands, which can command 370-kilometre EEZs.
International experts don't expect the South China Sea disputes to end up in court any time soon, though. Why would China, which is steadily growing in military strength and political clout, want to risk something as internally sensitive as a sovereignty case in front of a panel of foreign judges? More likely, the South China Sea will continue to be the focus of diplomatic efforts. It's just these kind of efforts, though, that political flag-waving or an overeager military can derail.
China and the Philippines tried to get the diplomatic process back on an even keel at the end of May, when they agreed to show restraint and set up a working group to review the claims. But such a committee is unlikely to be able to do more than dampen the volatility of the newest potential flashpoint.
Of course, if the shoal were completely submerged at high tide, it would go back to being little more than a shipping hazard, since no one could claim it. “Maybe in a few years global warming will solve the whole problem,” quips a Western diplomat. “All we need is a couple of metres.”