All is not quiet in the South China Sea

China's plans to build on Scarborough Shoal and moves by Japan, Indonesia and Australia draw the attention of commentators in Asia News Network papers this week. Here are excerpts.

Filipinos protesting outside the Chinese Embassy in Manila earlier this month over reports that China would start preparations to build an environmental monitoring station in the South China Sea.
Filipinos protesting outside the Chinese Embassy in Manila earlier this month over reports that China would start preparations to build an environmental monitoring station in the South China Sea.PHOTO: REUTERS

Puzzling show of defeatism

Philippine Daily Inquirer, Philippines

Glance at a map and see if you aren't startled at how close Panatag Shoal is to the Philippines - and why there is a so-called dispute about its ownership.

The triangle-shaped outcrop of rocks and reefs, also known as Bajo de Masinloc or Scarborough Shoal to generations of Filipino fishermen, is merely 124 nautical miles from Palauig, Zambales - the nearest land mass to it. That distance is about the same as from Manila to Daet, Camarines Norte.

By contrast, the nearest Chinese port, in Hainan Island, is a whopping 550 nautical miles away.

Filipinos protesting outside the Chinese Embassy in Manila earlier this month over reports that China would start preparations to build an environmental monitoring station in the South China Sea. PHOTO: REUTERS

The three-centuries-old map, Carta Hydrographica y Chorographica de las Yslas Filipinas - drawn by the Jesuit priest Pedro Murillo Velarde, published in 1734 and obtained by Filipino businessman Mel Velarde from a Sotheby's auction in London - definitively shows Panatag Shoal as part of Philippine territory.

The map formed part of the supporting documents the Philippines submitted to the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague that heard the country's protest against China's claim on the territory.

The tribunal decided in favour of the Philippines last year.

Unfortunately, despite the ruling, China has continued to exercise effective control over Panatag since at least 2012. Previous to that, the Philippines exercised occupation and jurisdiction over the area, even putting up a lighthouse there in 1965. But China wrested it from Philippine hands.

Now comes the disturbing news that China is building radar facilities on Panatag.

Supreme Court Associate Justice Antonio Carpio says such a station would further militarise the area.

Dishearteningly, President Rodrigo Duterte's response to this latest provocation has been a puzzling display of defeatism.

"There's nothing we can do," he said. "What do you want me to do? Declare war against China?"

Let's make it clear: No one is advocating a war to resolve this row. But, for a start, how about mobilising the consensus of Asean, a number of whose members are also disputing China's claims in the region?

The Philippines holds the Asean chairmanship this year.

Can't this administration put this urgent matter on the table?

Abe's meddling will fail

China Daily, China

On a four-nation tour of Europe, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is seeking the support of European countries in his bid to get the South China Sea disputes on the agenda for the Group of Seven (G-7) summit, to be held in Italy in May.

Given that neither Japan nor any European countries are directly involved in the maritime disputes in the South China Sea, Mr Abe is showing his desire to meddle in the issue for his own ends.

This is not the first time that he has tried to hijack the G-7 agenda and sought to internationalise the South China Sea disputes to serve his ulterior political purposes.

Mr Abe has been relentlessly pushing to get Japan deeply involved in the South China Sea disputes to justify his country's bigger military presence in the international arena.

Days before he embarked on his European tour, it was reported that Japan will dispatch the Izumo-class helicopter carrier, its largest warship, to the South China Sea. This will be Japan's biggest show of naval force in the region since World War II.

For a country that has never sincerely owned up to its militarist past, such an open and high-profile display of force is itself alarming, without mentioning its intended purpose of meddling in the sovereignty disputes to which it is not a party.

Japan's interference comes at a time when China is negotiating a framework for a code of conduct with South-east Asian countries.

Joint patrol idea ultimately flawed

Evan Laksmana

The Jakarta Post, Indonesia

The South China Sea could turn into an ugly domestic and regional quicksand for Indonesia and Australia as two non-claimants.

In an interview with The Australian shortly before his visit to Sydney on Feb 26 and 27, President Joko Widodo reportedly opened the door for Indonesia and Australia to jointly patrol the South China Sea. This notion, however, never made its way to the joint statement or the Joint Declaration on Maritime Cooperation issued at the end of the visit.

Subsequently, on the sidelines of the Indian Ocean Rim Association Summit in Jakarta, Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop and Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull downplayed the idea further.

Similarly, Indonesian officials never confirmed specific plans for a joint patrol as such.

Instead, they reiterated the shared strategic interest with Australia and the cooperative opportunities in the broader maritime domain.

Indonesia and Australia share a common interest in ensuring peace and stability in the South China Sea, but it does not follow that the only way to advance this interest is through a joint patrol, especially if it is pitched as a Freedom of Navigation Operation against China's now illegal "nine-dash line" claims.

As Indonesian and Australian leaders recently acknowledged, there is no need to unnecessarily escalate tension in the area.

Therefore, the commitment to the Asean-China Code of Conduct process as stated in the Joint Declaration on Maritime Cooperation is a step in the right direction, although alternative strategies to push it forward are sorely needed.

Taken as a whole, the Indonesia-Australia "South China Sea joint patrol" narrative is ultimately flawed and should be discarded if the above concerns still hold.

•The View From Asia is a weekly compilation of articles from The Straits Times' media partner Asia News Network, a grouping of 22 news media entities. For more, see

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 25, 2017, with the headline 'All is not quiet in the South China Sea'. Subscribe