A shoal by another name

China refers to Scarborough Shoal as Huangyan Island. The crucial word is not Huangyan, but the nature of the disputed territory. Is it a shoal or an island? What’s in a name?

An island is land territory surrounded by water; a shoal is an area mostly under water. Harry Roque, professor of international law at the University of the Philippines, says the difference determines the law to be applied to disputed territory. In a recent Inquirer commentary, he writes: “The Unclos (United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea) only deals with the sea and cannot be applied to disputed islands.”

The word “shoal” has its origin in the Old English adjective “sceald,” which means “shallow.” (Arcade Dictionary of Word Origins)  We’re talking here of an area that is under water, but it can be so shallow that at low tide its higher portions might jut out of the water as a string of rock formations. This is what makes “shoal” a close cousin of that other word “island.”

The Arcade Dictionary tells us: “Island comes ultimately from the prehistoric Germanic ‘aujo,’ which denoted ‘land associated with water,’ and was distantly related to Latin ‘aqua’ (water). This passed into Old English as ‘ieg’ which was subsequently compounded with land to form ‘iegland’.” Might it be that there was a time when this disputed area was a well-defined land mass above the sea, more than the mere shoal it is today? By calling it an island, that precisely is what China is saying. It is not farfetched to think that China also believes that once upon a time there was a Chinese settlement on this “island.”

The Unclos tells us that we own the waters around Scarborough Shoal because they are clearly within the Philippines’ 200-mile exclusive economic zone. The Chinese, on the other hand, have been taught—and this they seem to fervently believe—that Huangyan is as tangible an island as Taiwan or Hong Kong, and is therefore an indisputable part of Chinese territory. Only with this in mind can anyone make sense of Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hong Lei’s remark. “Isn’t it a weird thing in international affairs to submit a sovereign country’s territory to international arbitration? What a chaos the world will be in if this happens.”

Indeed, if one follows Hong’s argument—i.e., that territorial sovereignty is a matter of historic rights and not just a matter of proximity—one would have to question the British possession of the Falkland Islands in the South Atlantic, over which Argentina went to war in 1982. Or the United States’ possession of Guam in the Pacific, which had been a Spanish colony until it was ceded to the United States in 1898.

It is amazing how people can work themselves to the point of war over territory they have never been to or actually seen. Are we not quarrelling—and risking war and neighborly relations—over territory whose significance, right now, largely exists in the imagination of our leaders?

Imagination, as we know, has a way of playing tricks on all of us. It conjures massive untapped deposits of oil, gas, and mineral resources where ordinary eyes can only see water or bare rocks. Compounded with desire, imagination creates illusions of untold wealth that could slip from our hands if we did not take steps to safeguard it.

This heady mixture of desire and imagination is easily exacerbated by the intrusion of unexamined prejudices that are easily activated in both societies. Neighbors though they may be, the Filipinos and the Chinese have generally tended to regard the other as inferior to themselves. There is little love lost between our two peoples. Both countries have enough elements within their respective populations that can wage an endless and dangerous exchange of disparaging rhetoric. Filipinos see China as a big bully suffering from hubris brought about by its rise as an economic power. The Chinese see the Philippines as a puny insect hiding behind the skirt of the world’s greatest bully, the United States.

What lends credence to this rhetoric is that it has some basis. China knows that its economic success in the last three decades has made it the only other country in the world that can stand up to America as a superpower. Though it may not be in a position to challenge America’s military supremacy, China can cripple any attempt to revive the US economy at this time. Yet, China finds itself in the ironic position of having to defend the US dollar for no other reason than that it is holding so much of it.

On the other hand, the Philippines knows that the only reason China will not start a shooting war over Scarborough is the United States. Although the US-PH Mutual Defense Treaty is no sure guarantee that America will come to our defense, it nonetheless gives us leverage we would otherwise not have. The cost of this, of course, is that it makes us more dependent than ever on our former colonizer. More importantly, the Scarborough standoff puts us in an antagonistic relationship with a neighbor we should be wooing as an economic partner.

China has shown it is prepared to station its boats on Scarborough Shoal indefinitely. It is futile for us to match this physical assertiveness. We should get the rest of Asean to join us in crafting a multilateral solution to this problem or, failing that, bring our case to an international body for adjudication. But, if a friendly diplomatic solution is what we desire, we must not foreclose the possibility of a bilateral agreement with China that respects the dignity of both nations. In any case, we must resolutely avoid being dragged into a flag-burning conflict that, though emotionally gratifying, promises no concrete gains for our people.

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