Panatag Shoal:  a painful but useful lesson in geopolitics for the Philippines

The recent intrusion by Chinese naval vessels into the waters around Panatag Shoal some 135 nautical miles off Masinloc, Zambales demonstrates China’s renewed behavior of projecting and asserting its might beyond its borders.  The intrusion prevented the troops of a lone Philippine Navy cutter from arresting the crew of eight Chinese fishing boats for illegal fishing and poaching of endangered marine species in the area. 

This unprovoked and deliberate act on the part of the Chinese Navy is a clear violation of the Philippine 200-mile exclusive economic zone granted by the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), of which China and the Philippines are signatory countries.  What followed was a tense standoff at sea and heated exchange of diplomatic protests and statements between the Philippines and China.

Panatag Shoal (also known as Baja de Masinloc or Scarborough Shoal) is a ring of reefs and rock formations surrounding a lagoon in the West Philippine Sea that are mostly under water during high tide.  Had it not for the recent discovery of potential vast deposits of natural gas beneath its waters, Panatag Shoal would have remained an insignificant and uninhabited tiny speck in the West Philippine Sea or at best a historic landmark where the British tea-trade ship “Scarborough” was shipwrecked in the late 18th century killing everyone on board (hence its international name).

It is the promise of striking rich deposits of natural gas in the area that energy hungry China (which is at least 530 nautical miles from Panatag Shoal at its nearest basepoint in Hainan Island) is now claiming the shoal as Huangyan Island and bullying the Philippines out of the area.  They even got it wrong in describing Panatag as an island.   

How do we deal with a mighty and belligerent China?  Well obviously, in the absence of even a minimum credible defense capability, our options are limited to diplomatic initiatives through multilateral and collaborative approach.  Even these will have to be calibrated to the realities of today’s geopolitics.  We can bring our case to the international community for arbitration but we should bear in mind that each country will act based on its own national interest.  And that interest is defined by economic imperatives and considerations.

Let’s face it, China has a far bigger market for consumer goods with its huge population of 1.35 billion inhabitants and most countries will consider their national interest to be better served if they pick on China over the Philippines.  There is simply too much economics involved for countries doing business with China that they cannot afford to displease Beijing.

Those who somehow expected that the U.S. will come to our defense as a result of the recent “2 Plus 2 Meeting”  between the foreign and defense secretaries of the U.S. and the Philippines must have been disappointed with the Solomonic statement of U.S. State Secretary Hillary Clinton that “Washington does not take sides on competing sovereignty claim there (Panatag Shoal) but has a national interest in maintaining freedom of navigation as well as peace and stability.”

To begin with, the U.S. is not a signatory country to the UNCLOS.  Keeping the sea lanes open serves the national interest of the U.S. as a maritime world power, therefore, it will not support any territorial claim based on the UNCLOS.  China is also the largest holder of U.S. Treasury securities (amounting some US$1.13 trillion) and the U.S. cannot afford to be overly critical or antagonistic of China. 

We are all by our lonesome in this row with China.

But all is not lost for us.  We know better now that notwithstanding its show of friendly gestures to us, China has not lost its past appetite for territorial greed and aggresive use of force to advance its objectives.  We had also come to grips with our proper place in our neck of the woods and the reality that the rhetoric of our politicians and bureaucrats will not do in protecting and defending our territorial integrity.

We should bring our sovereignty claim over Panatag Shoal to the United Nations International Court of Justice and the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea.  Both courts have proper jurisdiction to settle sovereignty disputes between nations regarding marine territories.

China, a signatory country to the UNCLOS, does not want us to bring our case to these international courts because it knows that its claim of sovereignty over Panatag Shoal on the basis of purported writings and maps from its distant imperial period will not hold water in court when subjected to applicable international maritime and related laws.  China’s claim is preposterous and can be likened to a Greece claiming the lands conquered by Alexander the Great or an Italy asking for the territories of the Roman Empire to revert back to its possession.

We should keep pressing our case against China in regional and international arbitration bodies until the leaders of the Communist Party of China (CPC) realize that they don’t need another case of bad publicity to add to the CPC’s growing list of bad records in human rights violations, suppression of democratic reforms, and media censorship.  They don’t want us to bring our case to international fora (and we can see why), so keep them busy and occupied with damage control activities instead of plots and schemes of mischief against the Philippines.

What would be the implications of these actions on our trade relations with China?  For one, we can live without anomalous projects like ZTE-NBN and Northrail and melamine-tainted food products from China.  Secondly, the balance of trade between China and the Philippines is lopsidedly in favor China — we import a lot more than we export to China.  And the so-called “concessional loans”  from China are in fact “tied loans” attached to imposed projects and Chinese contractors.

Will China fire first at us in anger?  It is highly improbable.  The leadership of China has passed on from the gung ho warriors of the Mao-Deng era to a younger breed of leaders, less dogmatic but every bit as ruthless and unyielding as their predecessors in the CPC’s grip and control of state powers.  The inheritors and guardians of China’s economic imperialism, these new leaders have preference for the coercive use of  “soft power” to achieve their goal, but careful not to rock the delicate balance of power in the region right on their doorstep.  China is also careful not to give the U.S. an excuse to get involved in the row, which is why it is calibrating its actions against the Philippines in the form of diplomatic and economic pressures. 

If we are not stupid enough to fire the first volley at the Chinese, they would merely harass and wear us down into submission, as they had successfully done before in 1995 at Panganiban Reef (Mischief Reef) which is now home to a pre-positioned Chinese garrison with naval guns, anti-aircraft batteries, and early warning radars.

I’d say we draw the line this time, lest China’s persistent encroachment might one day reduce our territorial waters to the coastal waters of our beach resorts.  The waters surrounding Panatag and the other islets and reefs in the West Philippine Sea also represent source of food and fuel for the future generations of Filipinos.  And we don’t have the right to freely give them away to the Chinese by default. 

Our territorial row with China is a painful lesson in geopolitics for the Philippines and its sorry state of affairs.  But we could think of it as an opportunity rather than a problem and develop a strong economy that can build and maintain a credible defense capability.  If we cannot protect and defend our territory, then maybe we do not deserve to keep it. 

Author:  Rene “RC” Catacutan
Published 06 May 2012

 Related photos 

Geographical location and satellite image of Panatag Shoal (Scarborough Shoal) some 135 nautical miles from the Philippine province of Zambales or 530 nautical miles from China’s island province of Hainan.  (Photo credit:





Photo of Philippine flag planted on a rock formation at Panatag Shoal.  (Photo credit:





Philippine Navy handout photos show troops inspecting a Chinese fishing vessel loaded with endangered corals, giant clam shells and baby sharks (lower left inset) intercepted at Panatag Shoal.  (Photo credit: 





Photo of the Philippine Navy cutter BRP Gregorio Del Pilar currently in a standoff with two Chinese Navy surveillance ships in the waters around Panatag Shoal.  (Photo credit: Inquirer Global Nation.)





Photo of the Chinese surveillance ship Yuakeng 310, one of  two Chinese naval vessels currently in a standoff with a Philippine Navy cutter in the waters around Panatag Shoal.  (Photo credit: Raissa Robles.)





Satellite photos show Chinese naval fortresses and supply platforms within the Philippine Kalayaan Island Group some 135 nautical miles west of the Philippine island province of Palawan.  (Photo credit: