Wednesday, December 6

There’s plenty of fish in the sea…?


Aerial photo shows a vast lagoon section of the Scarborough Shoal. The fighting between fishermen in this area may develop into a naval war between two friends of Malaysia. — AFP photo

A SHOAL is an area of shallow water or a submerged sandbank visible at low water. One shoal in the South China Sea has become famous for all the wrong reasons.

The Filipinos call this area ‘Scarborough Shoal’, and the Chinese call it ‘Huangyan Island’. Each one claims the shoal as its own territory. Seen as land, it is not worth much, but I should imagine there must be lots of fish in the area.

And there may be more than the fish below the sea bottom!

It is a shoal of golden fish that China and the Philippines are squabbling about.

According to AFP report quoted by The Borneo Post (Sept 27, 2023), there has been tension between China and the Philippines over ownership of this area.

Not that this is exactly news. In 2012, China had seized the area.

The Philippines resorted to help from the Permanent Court of Arbitration for a solution.

Four years later, the court ruled that China’s blockade of the area violated international law.

China ignored this ruling and continued to send patrol boats to keep out the Filipino fishermen from the shoal.

By 2016, one expected that this ruling would be the end of the quarrel. Things got progressively worse instead.

Last week saw a 300m floating barrier stretched across the entrance of the shoal. Who put the barrier there, your guess is as good as mine?

That sparked another spat. Angry words were exchanged over the removal of the barrier by the Philippines coast guards, insisting on their rights to remove the barriers, while the Chinese, reacting, and warning the Filipinos ‘not stir up trouble’.

In normal circumstances, if you catch a thief in the process of stealing your chickens, can he warn you ‘not to stir up trouble’? But in the case of the quarrel between China and the Philippines over the ownership of the shoal, you cannot apply logic.

Both parties must solve the quarrel out of court the sooner the better, finding a way out before resorting to violence.

Out at sea, now it is fishermen against fishermen – supported by their coast guards and eventually, navies.

Next? What if this spat may develop into, I hate to think – a war?

Why Malaysians worry?

Why do we Malaysians care or worry about this problem between two nations who are also our friends?

We should be worried because of possible consequences to the geopolitics and to our relations with both nations. The whole ‘spat’ is happening right on our maritime doorstep.

If your neighbours have a quarrel and start shooting at each other, you’re liable to get hurt too! A stray bullet, etc.

Our fishermen will not go to sea – expensive fish in the market for marine freaks like me.

International shipping in the South China Sea handling trillions of dollars of trade will be adversely affected – goods (rice, wheat, building materials, etc.) do not get delivered safely to destinations.

Inevitably, the lives of ordinary people not only of the two countries, but all their neighbours, will be badly affected. Worse, there will be an influx of refugees from the Philippines descending upon Sabah, Lawas, and Miri?

Would that not compound the demographic picture of Sabah?

I do not think Sabah, plus Sarawak, are quite prepared to cope with an influx of refugees from anywhere.

Will we act smart?

Will we be smart enough to avoid siding with either party to a quarrel while we have outstanding problems of claims over water or territory?

A million-dollar question — can we avoid being dragged into the war, like it or not?

These questions are relevant, I think, because of the outstanding claims by the Philippines on Sabah (Malaysia) and the claim by China over Sarawak’s (Malaysia’s) territorial waters inside the nine dash line.

Sabah and Sarawak, being partner states nearest to the possible conflict zone, would be in a real dilemma, if in real danger.

Think of that possibility.

In geopolitics, anything may happen to nations. Friends become enemies overnight, friends again the next day, enemies all over again. But it is the common people like you and me who will suffer, as always.

Learn the history of wars – the politicians regard themselves as statesmen if their country wins the war; the soldiers get the medals for bravery and death; territories are gained, territories are lost; but the people are always the losers in any event.

I do not know what Malaysian diplomats in Manila and Beijing are doing about helping China and the Philippines solve the issue over those reefs.

I am sure they have been doing some work quietly out of the prying eyes of the media, lest we speculate.

The media people, worth their salt, do not speculate.

United Nations

Maybe the Philippines should refer the matter to the United Nations (UN). I think that the reference of the case of the shoal to the UN would give the chance to the other three member countries (the littoral countries), have a direct interest in the dispute on the South China Sea, to express their respective perspectives at the UN level, for the record, if not for action by the toothless world body.

Nonetheless, Malaysia should think in terms of supporting the reference of this case to the UN should the Philippines or China take the initiative to get the UN involved.

There is the ‘1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea’. One problem, of course, is that a disputant may simply say he does not recognise the Convention.

But there is provision relating to the jurisdiction of a littoral country over the natural resources within about 200 nautical miles (370 kilometres) of its shore.

Every nation, big or small, should respect this provision.

Is it asking too much?