This post summarizes one of nine case studies included in CSIS’s new report, Countering Coercion in Maritime Asia: The Theory and Practice of Gray Zone Deterrence. The full case study is also available for download here. (Principal case study researcher: Jake Douglas)
On April 8, 2012, a Philippine aircraft sighted a group of Chinese fishermen anchored in Scarborough Shoal. Manila, Beijing, and Taipei all lay claim to this coral atoll, but at the time Manila exercised de facto control. Indeed, the Philippine Navy had often detained or expelled Chinese fishermen in the area. So on April 8, Manila dispatched its largest naval frigate (recently acquired from Washington) to disrupt what it viewed as illegal fishing.
The Philippines’ BRP Gregorio del Pilar reached the shoal early on April 10. Armed sailors boarded and inspected the Chinese ships, but when the Filipinos disembarked to prepare to make arrests, the trawlers sent out a distress call to authorities in China’s Hainan Province. Two unarmed China Marine Surveillance (CMS) vessels happened to be on a routine patrol nearby. They quickly arrived and took position just outside the narrow mouth of Scarborough Shoal’s lagoon. As night fell, the two sides settled into an uneasy standoff.
Philippine leaders initially sought a “diplomatic solution” and indicated they would not involve the United States in the dispute, for the time being. On April 12, Manila demilitarized its presence by replacing the navy frigate with a coast guard ship. Beijing did not immediately reciprocate; in fact, a third Chinese vessel turned up the same day.
The morning of April 13, however, promising initial talks occurred between Philippine foreign secretary Albert del Rosario and China’s ambassador in Manila. Soon after, two Chinese cutters shepherded the Chinese fishing boats out of the shoal, leaving Manila and Beijing one ship apiece. Unfortunately, negotiations broke down the same evening. Manila had opposed letting the fishermen leave with their haul intact. The Chinese ambassador also insisted that the Philippines withdraw its last vessel first, but Manila refused. When del Rosario publicly declared a “stalemate” the next morning, a second Chinese vessel returned to the shoal.
On April 17, the Philippines shifted strategy and broadcast that it would unilaterally pursue international or third-party arbitration of the dispute. Manila also appealed directly to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to “take a stand.” Beijing rejected these attempts to “internationalize” the crisis and accused Manila of breaking “the consensus reached” to resolve it bilaterally.
Nevertheless, China made another attempt at conciliation. On April 23, Chinese state media trumpeted that Beijing had withdrawn two vessels to “prove” its readiness to settle the matter through dialogue. Even Philippine reports suggest that, at certain points, all of China’s cutters were probably pulled over the horizon. Still, the Philippines dismissed this overture, perhaps due to confusion, and instead deployed a second fisheries vessel into the lagoon.
Manila then stated on April 26 that it would seek to “maximize” U.S. involvement. Switching gears, the Chinese military warned it could “make joint efforts” with civilian agencies at Scarborough if necessary. On April 28, a Chinese cutter harassed the Philippine ships at the shoal. Four Chinese government ships were back in the standoff two days later.
Shifts in Maritime Presence During the 2012 Standoff
U.S. and Philippine officials met in Washington on April 30. The United States reaffirmed its alliance obligations and pledged to help build its ally’s maritime capacity. Critically, it did not clarify whether the U.S.-Philippine Mutual Defense Treaty covered the South China Sea or promise to intervene directly. Leaders in the Philippines clearly expected more, but U.S. policymakers were frustrated with Manila’s management of the crisis.
Tensions entered the economic arena on May 3 when it was reported that shipments of Philippine fruits were rejected at Chinese ports. Chinese customs authorities claimed they had failed quality control tests, but many suspected Beijing was using the restrictions as a tool in the dispute. On the other hand, Manila never officially accused Beijing of economic coercion. China began taking steps toward this quarantine in March and had imposed similar bans over legitimate health concerns as recently as 2011.
Meanwhile, China continued to escalate at sea. By May 21, five cutters and over a dozen fishing trawlers faced off against the Philippines’ two vessels. With the situation worsening, Philippine president Benigno Aquino III decided to empower a back-channel negotiator, Senator Antonio Trillanes IV. Between May and July, Trillanes met with Chinese vice foreign minister Fu Ying and another official some 16 times.
After more than two months, the Philippines pulled its two vessels out of Scarborough Shoal on June 15. Manila initially maintained they were evading a typhoon, but only days later, it indignantly protested that Beijing was also expected to leave as part of a mutual “agreement.” There are two sharply contrasting accounts of these climatic events.
The conventional wisdom is that U.S. assistant secretary of state Kurt Campbell negotiated an immediate, mutual withdrawal with Fu Ying sometime in early June. China reportedly made “commitments to ‘de-escalate’ over Scarborough,” and the United States “put a lot of pressure on the [Philippines] to step back.” Manila followed through, but according to this view, Beijing reneged and kept its ships at the shoal.
A second narrative holds that Fu only committed to relaying the “suggestion” to her superiors. To some of those present, it was not obvious whether the two sides reached a deal, nor what its terms were. Communication errors multiplied because Manila was told that Beijing had conclusively agreed. Per Trillanes, “there was never a commitment for a total pullout.” He had instead been negotiating a sequential withdrawal in which China would have quietly pulled out two ships per day. Some sources suggest that the Philippines’ public outing of the cobbled-together arrangement was a deal breaker that forced Chinese officials to call it off rather than be seen as weak domestically.
Whatever the specific details of these talks, nothing succeeded in restoring Philippine administration of the shoal. Manila chose not to revive the standoff once it became clear that Chinese ships were not leaving (or, perhaps, had come back). This amounted to a de facto transfer of control to Beijing. By July, there were reports of China turning the tables and chasing Filipino fishermen away from Scarborough.
Before the ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Meeting later that month, Trillanes’s back channel again offered to remove China’s remaining three vessels if Manila downplayed the dispute. Yet, most of the Philippine cabinet favored pushing forcefully for regional support. Heated discord at the ASEAN summit, however, prevented ASEAN from issuing a joint communiqué for the first time in its history. This final failure led Manila to settle on pursuing international arbitration.
Scarborough Shoal is widely seen as the most palpable erosion of stability in the South China Sea since 2012. Thus, three conclusions about the standoff, especially its initial stages, highlight opportunities to better manage disputes in the years ahead:
- First, the Philippines’ decision to deploy a warship rather than its coast guard to seize the Chinese fishermen likely helped trigger the standoff.
- Second, Beijing and Manila missed several opportunities to quickly resolve the crisis. There was also poor coordination within and between their respective bureaucracies.
- Third, closer U.S.-Philippine coordination might have provided a beneficial mix of reassurance and restraint early in the crisis.
For more articles in this series, please visit our Countering Coercion in Maritime Asia Report page.