Oil under troubled waters

By Eric Watkins

LOS ANGELES, May 15 – China and the Philippines have temporarily staved off conflict in the South China Sea, with each country imposing a ban on fishing in the troubled waters. But no one said anything about looking for oil or gas there.

The two countries announced overlapping fishing bans in disputed waters around the Scarborough Shoal in what the South China Morning Post described as a “face-saving solution” for both countries to their month-long standoff.

China’s Ministry of Agriculture said it would enforce a ban on most fishing activities for most South China Sea waters from May 16 to August 1, adding a face-saving note that the ban is an annual affair.

Indeed, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman said that the ban was to protect marine life and not related to the standoff at Scarborough Shoal – known as Huangyan Island on mainland China and Panatag Shoal in the Philippines.

Other Chinese officials reinforced that line.

‘REGULAR MEASURE’

“The ban has no relation to the current tensions in the dispute over Huangyan Island. It is a regular measure that China takes to protect fishery resources in this area every year,” said Yang Shaosong of the South China Sea Fishery Bureau.

“China’s insistence on seeking solutions through diplomatic negotiations has not changed,” the spokesman said of the ban, which affects areas above latitude 12 degrees north. That includes Scarborough Shoal, which lies at 15 degrees north.

But Manila was not buying the Chinese line.

“We do not recognize China’s fishing ban in as much as portions of the ban encompass our Exclusive Economic Zone,” said Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario, adding that President Benigno Aquino had decided to impose a ban, too.

“The president has decided that in view of the accelerated depletion of our marine resources, it would be advisable for us to issue our own fishing ban for a period of time,” del Rosario said.

PHILIPPINE SHIPS REMAIN

A Philippines foreign affairs spokesman said that no dates or exact areas had yet been set for his country’s ban, but that Philippine ships would remain at the shoal, where they have been for weeks.

The standoff between the two countries began in early April when a Philippine warship tried to arrest Chinese fishermen at the shoal, but was stopped by Chinese marine surveillance vessels.

Du Jifeng, of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, told the South China Morning Post that China had banned fishing as a friendly gesture and the Philippines’ response showed that China’s message had been understood and accepted.

“The stand-off has become a standstill, as neither country can come up with an effective solution,” Du said. “I believe it will quickly cool down as the ban comes into effect.”

US-CHINA AGREEMENT

The cooling off can also be attributed to a recent underlying agreement between China and the U.S. to restrain their respective allies in the region.

“Earlier this month the US and China held strategic and economic talks in which the two agreed to avoid tensions over hegemony in the Asia-Pacific region,” said Chen Hsin-chih, a professor of political science at Taiwan’s National Cheng Kung University.

“China complied with US wishes in condemning North Korea’s recent failed rocket launch, calling it a ‘serious violation’ of UN resolutions, and the US likewise has obliged by remaining on the sidelines of the Scarborough Shoal spat,” Chen said.

According to Chen, the U.S. emphasized that sovereignty conflicts in the South China Sea should be dealt with via peaceful, collaborative, multilateral and diplomatic means and made it “crystal clear” that it does not support any rash actions by the Philippines on the issue.

NO WORD ON OIL

That said, it should be recalled that the U.S. and the Philippines recently conducted a military exercise on how to retake an oil and gas platform in the South China Sea from “terrorists”.

That prompted speculation that the exercise simulated protection of the disputed Reed Bank off Palawan Province when Manila starts drilling for gas there later this year.

In a word, the Chinese and Philippine bans on fishing in the South China Sea have brought welcome relief from the standoff that has occupied much world attention for the past month. But the bans on fishing make no statement about oil or gas under the sea, commodities that surely are more contentious than fish.

© Glamma Productions Inc. 2012

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About Eric Watkins

Eric Watkins is a consultant specializing in oil diplomacy. A former journalist, Mr. Watkins's work has appeared in numerous leading publications including The Wall Street Journal, The Economist, The Financial Times, and specialist media such as Oil & Gas Journal, Middle East Economic Survey (MEES), and Lloyd's List.
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