Yesterday, the Philippines called home its ambassador to China for what it called was consultations. This is the latest development amid tensions in a long-running maritime territorial dispute between China and the Philippines. Foreign Department spokesman Raul Hernandez announced Ambassador Erlinda Basilio’s trip after Manila accused China of laying 75 concrete blocks on the disputed Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea. Even as the world is preoccupied with the Syrian crisis, with the US strikes against the regime of Bashar Al Assad imminent, the tension in the South China Sea has been building up. On one side is a superpower, which has the military and economic muscle to threaten its neighbours on any issue, and on the other is a developing country, which is finding itself caught in a dispute at a time when it should be working on more serious issues like economic development.
Manila is arguing that the laying of concrete blocks could be a prelude to building structures at the shoal, 220 kilometres off the main Philippine island of Luzon and within the Philippines’ internationally recognised exclusive economic zone. A Chinese foreign ministry spokesman has rejected the Philippine allegations, while asserting his country’s sovereignty over the shoal. The outcrop is about 650 kilometres from Hainan island, the nearest major Chinese land mass, but China claims most of the South China Sea including waters near the coasts of its neighbours.
Not only with the Philippines, China has competing claims to parts of the sea with also Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam, and the dispute has been a source of tension for decades. All these countries are no match for the power of China, and for the same reason, the territorial dispute is a major source of tension for them. But for Beijing it’s business as usual. Before the recall of the ambassador, the Philippine President Benigno Aquino had called off a planned trip to China for a trade fair after Chinese authorities imposed conditions on his visit. This is a clear indication that the dispute is taking a serious toll on the diplomatic relations between the two countries, and unless remedial measures are taken, the situation could deteriorate further. Both Manila and Beijing must try to solve the dispute amicably and enlist the support of third parties for the same, especially the United Nations. China must refrain from doing anything that will create tension, and as a superpower, must behave more responsibly towards its neighbours. Beijing is feared by its neighbours, rather than respected. In a changing world where the US is losing its supremacy, China is being asked to play a bigger role. Beijing must start by first winning the confidence of its neighbours. As a superpower, it can set an example by making concessions in its territorial disputes•