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Who Owns Scarborough Shoals that China Claims?

Updated on April 30, 2016
Philippines planting their flag in the 1990s
Philippines planting their flag in the 1990s
Scarrough Shoals
Scarrough Shoals

The easy answer is that the Philippines has its rightful claim to the small atoll just 200 miles from Manila. If one objectively looks at the historical documents, there is a fair amount of ties that place Scarborough Shoals with the Philippines.

However, to be fair, neither China nor the Philippines had expressed much interest in the atoll of rocks with little value (except for fishing). The Philippines’s claim on Scarborough Shoal can be based on the activities of the Spanish Navy during the 19th century. The Spanish authorities surveyed, mapped, and named the shoal. These same actions, during the American time, were limited due to the fact that the shoal was far from the coastal area of Luzon and mostly submerged at high tide. But,the shoal was in the sphere of influence of the Philippines, their territorial water. During all this time, there is no evidence of a Chinese interest, no protest by the Emperors of the Qing Dynasty. Even the Paracel Islands, closer to China, were not part of the Chinese territory before 1909. In fact, China was confused about the location of the Paracel and Spratly islands in the 1930s when they did make public claims to challenge the French who claimed them first. China thought that the Spratly islands were the Paracel islands, which are much closer to the Chinese mainland. From 1909 to 1935, the Paracel Islands became the southernmost part of China on all the maps and official documents.But neither Scarborough Shoal nor the Spratly Islands were considered as parts of the national territory of China at this time by the Chinese.

In 1937-38, the colonial authorities, either American or Filipino, claimed Scarborough Shoal. This claim was supported by the State Department and other important mainland administrations. The Chinese government made a blanket claim in 1935 to all of the South China Sea, among them Scarborough Shoal. This was out of fear of Japan's growing power as WW2 got close.Yet, the claim was not announced to the world and remained unknown. Their claim was based on that Chinese fisherman frequently fished there. The Philippine claim, while supported by documents and treaties, remained silent also because of Japanese aggression.

Up to the 1990s, the Philippine government had some activities that went unchecked by Chinese administrations. They built a small lighthouse with a Filipino flag, and the U.S. and Filipino navies using the shoal for target practice. The constitutions of 1973 and 1987 defined the main territory of the Philippines archipelago but added, “and all other territories over which the Philippines has sovereignty or jurisdiction”. The Chinese government on the shoal started in 1980 and their protests in the decades before were never targeted to the Filipino activities on Scarborough Shoal, but to activities in the Spratly and Paracel areas. In short, up to the end of the 1970s and beginning of the 1980s, the shoal was largely ignored by intellectuals and policy-makers in China. From the end of WW2 up to the 1990s, Scarborough Shoal was largely ignored by the governments of China, Taiwan, and the Philippines. China's navy was far too weak to exert any territorial claims and felt Scarborough was too close to the American base at Subic Bay.

On May 1, 1997, Philippine Navy ships intercepted an international amateur radio team, sponsored by China, on Scarborough Shoal, and later arrested 21 Chinese fishermen, it started the first confrontation between the two countries over the shoal and has slowly escalated.

Jumping to the present in 2016, China has now announced it will expand its presence on the island and enlarge it. While the Philippines and the US are wary of this being so close to the Philippines, it is a wait and see event. Currently, Chinese ships seem to be stationed there on a regular basis, The US has been granted to five military bases in the Philippines, including Subic Bay, to help position US equipment and train Filipino military. There are 4-5 A-10 ground attack planes now based there with 200 support staff. In total, about 600 US advisers in training roles. The US Navy continues to patrol through the South China Sea and within miles of Chinese held islands. What is China's next move?

But, their claim that Scarborough was always part of China is nonsense. Will the West allow them to create a base there, is the next real test.


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    • perrya profile image

      perrya 20 months ago

      Its not toooo late!

    • lions44 profile image

      CJ Kelly 20 months ago from Auburn, WA

      It's Philippine territory and we should have never allowed that to happen. We will pay for it later. Great hub and shared.