Where does the US stand on the Panatag Shoal dispute?

A lot of attention and commentary was focused on US Secretary of State Clinton’s statement on the ‘evolving regional security situation’:

    “We both share deep concerns about the developments on the Korean Peninsula and events in the South China Sea, including recent tensions surrounding the Scarborough Shoal. In this context, the United States has been clear and consistent. While we do not take sides on the competing sovereignty claims to land features in the South China Sea, as a Pacific power we have a national interest in freedom of navigation, the maintenance of peace and stability, respect for international law, and the unimpeded, lawful commerce across our sea lanes. The United States supports a collaborative diplomatic process by all those involved for resolving the various disputes that they encounter. We oppose the threat or use of force by any party to advance its claims. And we will remain in close contact with our ally, the Philippines.”

Some analysts highlighted Clinton’s reiteration of US neutrality in the South China Sea (SCS) dispute and interpreted it as unequivocal proof that the US was “abandoning” the Philippines and leaving it to “Beijing’s tender mercies.” Some even concluded it rendered the Mutual Defense Treaty a useless scrap of paper and consequently called for its abrogation. That conclusion is un-nuanced and over the top because the US policy of neutrality applies not only to the Philippines but to all the countries with competing claims in the area. Clinton was not singling out the Philippines-China dispute; she was enunciating a universal policy.

The more telling part of Sec. Clinton’s remark and the one that directly affects our dispute with China is the one where she identifies the US “as a Pacific power” that has “a national interest in freedom of navigation, the maintenance of peace and stability, respect for international law, and the unimpeded, lawful commerce across our sea lanes.”

In effect, Clinton is saying that the US will not takes sides in a skirmish over rocks in the sea but it will go to war against anyone who will take control of the sea lanes without its consent. That should give comfort to the Philippines because it straddles sea lanes that the US deems vital to its national interest.

Rest assured the Panatag Shoals will remain out of China’s hands because the US will not allow a rival power to exercise exclusive control over such a strategic economic and military area. Mutuality of interests, sovereignty for us and projection of power for the US, glues the Philippine-US strategic alliance.

Clinton also expressed her support for internationalizing the settlement of the disputes – “a rules-based multilateral, peaceful approach in resolving competing claims in maritime areas within the framework of international law, including UNCLOS” – while implicitly warning China against the use of threats or force to get its way – “We oppose the threat or use of force by any party to advance its claims.”

That bit about UNCLOS is not as innocuous as it seems because China has been strongly and consistently against the Philippines bringing the Panatag dispute to UNCLOS. We have to thank Philippine officials for getting the Americans to explicitly side with us on that issue.

Finally, as a parting reminder to China about whose side the US is on, Clinton said, “And we will remain in close contact with our ally, the Philippines.”

The 2+2 meeting is a reaffirmation of the Manila Declaration signed by Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in November 2011 in commemoration of the 60th anniversary of the Philippines-US Mutual Defense Treaty. The two secretaries signed the Manila Declaration on board the USS Fitzgerald, a counter-ballistic missile destroyer deployed with the US 7th Fleet. The symbolism cannot be ignored and neither can the declaration that said, “On this historic occasion, we reflect on the rich history of our alliance and the continuing relevance of the treaty for peace, security, and prosperity in the Asia-Pacific region. We also reaffirm the treaty as the foundation of our relationship for the next 60 years and beyond.”

We have at least 60 years to make our defense capabilities strong enough to ward off Chinese mapmakers.

Manuel Buencamino

Buencamino was a weekly columnist for Today and Business Mirror. He has also written articles in other publications like Malaya, Newsbreak, "Yellow Pad" in Business World, and "Talk of the Town" in the Inquirer. He is currently with Interaksyon, the news site of TV5. MB blogged for Filipino Voices, blogs for ProPinoy and maintains a blog, Uniffors.com. Game-changers for him, as far as music goes, are Monk, Miles, Jimi, and Santana.

  • i like the design and presentation of the site.http://www.kitsucesso.com

  • UPnnGrd

    On a small plane headed to Palawan airport, the 3 passengers were  Nards (a student of FEU) ,  Cesar (from Malakanyang), and Huang Khin Do from Beijing.  The government officials (Malakanyang and Beijing) were to open an office in Palawan for fisherman to get permits so they can fish in Panatag shoal.  

    Bad weather… the plane was flying straight into a typhoon front. 
    Suddenly,  there is a shudder, and then the pilot rushes into the passenger cabin in an agitated state. “Palyado ang makina… emergency… emergency….” he cries, “We are going to crash.   O-ma-gad—o-ma-gad!!!  At masama…there are only three parachutes for the 4 of us.”

    Just like that,  the 2 government officials  jump up and says, “Sooo  so-llyy, but our government needs us!!!”  They grab a pack, strap them on, and leap out of the plane.

    Napa-nganga si Nardo at iyong piloto… after a long pause, Nards the student starts laughing hard. The pilot thought the student was reacting from the stress. The pilot tells Nards: “Anak… may isa pang parachute… Sa iyo iyong parachute. Sabihin mo na lang sa mga angkan ko, matatag ako hanggang sa huling sandali.”

    Nards replies: “Naku, salamat ho. Pero hindi ho ninyo kailangang mag-paalam at hindi pa ninyo panahon. Iyong dalawa,  ang tinangay bago lumundag … iyong aking dalawang backpack.”

  • baycas

    (The following is an excerpt from a paper written for the “First Manila Conference on the South China Sea: Toward a Region of Peace, Cooperation, and Progress”, July 5-6, 2011.)

    The South China Sea Disputes: Regional Security Implications and Avenues for Cooperation [1]

    Carolina G. Hernandez, PhD
    Institute for Strategic and Development Studies Philippines

    The SCS area has been seen as a regional ‘hotspot’ [3] where tension and conflict are more likely than cooperation and peace. The primary reasons for this view include the conjunction of strategic and economic interests of the great regional powers of the Asia-Pacific region China, Japan, South Korea, the United States (US), Russia, India, and Australia – in the SCS, the world’s second busiest sea lines of communication (SLOC).

    The SCS connects the Indian Ocean via the Strait of Malacca to the Pacific Ocean via the Taiwan Strait. These sea lanes are also seen as ‘choke points‘ which any state dominating or controlling the SCS can use against opponents. The national interests of the great maritime countries in the world that use these SLOCs require respect for freedom of navigation in these waters, as well as over fight in the airspace above them.

    It is also through the SCS where over a quarter of global trade passes, including 70% of Japan’s energy needs (before the nuclear leak in the Fukushima nuclear power facility following the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami disasters in Japan) and 65% of China’s. East Asia’s reliance on global trade for economic growth has also made the SCS a critical transport route for its exports and imports, a fact not lost on regional states. [4]

    [1] Prepared for the International Conference on “The South China Sea: Toward a Region of Peace, Cooperation, and Progress” jointly organized by the Foreign Service Institute (The Philippines) and the Diplomatic Academy of Vietnam, Dusit Thani Hotel, Makati City, The Philippines, 5-6 July 2011.

    [3] Ralf Emmers, “Maritime security in Southeast Asia”, in Sumit Ganguly, Andrew Scobell, and Joseph Chiyong Liow, editors, The Routledge Handbook of Asian Security Studies (London and New York, 2010), p. 241.

    [4] None of the country perspectives on the importance of the SCS failed to take this into account in the 1995 International Conference on the South China Sea in Manila. See these country papers in Carolina G. Hernandez and Ralph Cossa, editors, Security Implications of Conflict in the South China Sea: Perspectives from Asia-Pacific (Quezon City and Honolulu: Institute for Strategic and Development Studies and Pacific Forum/CSIS, 1997).


    The South China Sea Reader


  • Interesting article
    and the discussion seems to arrive at a harmonious, sound conclusion. Secretary
    Clinton’s remark was neither abandonment of the Philippines nor commitment to
    march to war if the Philippines decided to do something imprudent. The U.S. /China
    relationship is a big deal for the U.S. Trade between the two countries is
    robust. Theft of American ideas is rampant. Social values differ. The Chinese
    are ambitious on laying claim to rare minerals and other ores around the world.
    But China has come a long way the past 20 years and the U.S. has – for self
    interest – encouraged China to step forward as a responsible global player. The
    U.S. would not want to knock the relationship back to the stone ages. So any
    Filipino who believes the U.S. should adopt a belligerent stance against China
    in support of the Philippines, rather than a diplomatically nuanced stance, is
    smoking the dope of blind self-interest. They also fail to recognize that a
    globally responsible China is more likely to make concessions on the contested
    islands, whereas a defensive China, pushed into a corner where face is more
    important than reason, is likely to take up arms.

    • Joe my friend, are you trying to be politically and diplomatically ambiguous with that comment of yours? Do you really think that we Filipinos who believed that the US military will involve itself on our side in the event of a shooting war in the West Philippine Sea between Chinese and Philippine warships are “smoking the dope of blind self-interest”?

      Are you saying then that your country the US is willing to abandon the South China Sea to the control of China in favor of US trade with China? Is that what you want? Please enlightened us.

      • GabbyD

        its almost certain that the US would involve itself in the event of a shooting war. 

      • Roberto, I think the Philippines does not speak for the US. If the Philippines elected to attack Chinese boats with guns firing, I think the US would move in to stop the shooting, not join it. Also, I did not comment about sea lanes. There is a difference between sea lanes and islands with oil under them. If China blocked sea lanes, that would be a different story.

        • Ah, Joe, that’s clear enough. What you’re saying in effect is that your government would not mind China having control of the entire South China Sea by sinking Philippine navy ships in the West Philippine Sea as long as China will allow the continued trade with your country, is that it?

          I understand your sentiment, but not good enough for our country and people who wholeheartedly regard you and love you as a friend. Too bad in fact for us if that is also the stand of your government.

          Further, Joe, I think this not about friendship between the Philippines and your country. If China shoot Philippine navy ship in our shore thinking that the shore and the sea are theirs, that would tantamount to China taking control of the whole South China Sea. I believe that if your government will allow that kind of situation, then I’m sorry for your country.

          • Well, no, what you are reading is not what I am saying. It is what you are mistakenly taking from my comments. My remark was based on the Philippines taking the initiative in shooting. The Philippines cannot be rash and expect the U.S. to follow, is my very simple notion. You have built it into some gigantic intercultural rivalry, full of jealousy and deceit and who knows what all. Also, I represent Joe America, a person, not my government. Hillary Clinton does that well enough, thanks. I suggest you take a “chill pill” and ease back. You are building up mistrust and anger that need not be built up.

          • UPnnGrd

            A worry among those unknown-but-have-impact analysts at Foggy bottom is some Filipino bravado-thing coupled with carelessness  (with PersiNoy or Lacierda doing the mantra that Malakanyang knows how International Law Should Work)  results in China unleashing missiles.   

            Vietnam is quiet…   that should mean something.

            Japan is quiet when it is Japan who should worry quuite a lot because those sea lanes carry the oil into Japan. Maybe PersiNoynoy can inquire why Japan is quiet.

            [Of course, China has to be reminded about those thousands of hectares of land that both GuLLOO and PersiNNOOY had leased out. PersiNoynoy may just tear the contracts in the event of missiles flying, one would think. ]

  • MB, thanks for highlighting the comprehension deficit exhibited by some commentators. I must admit, I skimmed the same media reports that you alluded to in the piece and took them at face value.

    It wasn’t of sufficient concern for me, so I didn’t bother consulting the actual pronouncement by the US Secretary of State. Running my eyes over it, and reading between the diplomatic “polite” lines, I concur that it in no way suggests we have been abandoned, in fact, it is quite the opposite. It is crystal clear that the US will not allow a unilateral occupation by a contending “Pacific power” of contested waters or territories in violation of international law. In this regard, our interests align with theirs which is why they will be in “close contact” with us.

    Could it be that we still think of ourselves as America’s “little brown brother” that we expect her to take our side and fight our battles each time we get into trouble? Mrs Clinton was walking a fine diplomatic line. On the one hand, she had to appear impartial as the sole superpower in the region, on the other, she wanted to caution China to respect her international obligations under the convention on the law of the seas. It was a nuanced approach as you put it. 

    Either the analysts were too dense in which case the message simply washed over them, ie got “lost in translation”, or they were operating in hyper critical mode, seeking a controversial headline for commercial gain and portrayed things inaccurately. We need to caution them, such simple ignorance or plain mischief is precisely how wars get started.

    • Manuelbuencamino


      “Could it be that we still think of ourselves as America’s “little brown brother” that we expect her to take our side and fight our battles each time we get into trouble?”

      Yes I think that mentality still exists. And I think it could explain some of the commentary regarding Clinton’s statement. At the same time, there are also those who were seeking a controversial headline for commercial gain. Those two reactions that I enclosed in quotation marks came from hyper-critics of the administration.

      The transcript of the press conference after the joint statement was signed is also very interesting in that Clinton’s language is a little more direct.

      You may want to check out a blog called southseaconversations. It links to articles on the chinese perspective.  And then there’s the saber rattling article Troubled waters call for decisive action By Luo Yuan in China.org.cn Luo Yuan is a PLA Major General   connected to the China Association for Military Service, a strategic think tank for China’s defense forces.

      • Also, these commentators seem to have forgotten the State Department’s overall policy, which is a pivot towards Asia announced by Sec Clinton when she toured the region and by Barack before the Australian parliament. The message that America would renew and strengthen its ties with allies in the region was aimed directly at China. Clinton’s message was a reiteration of that general policy.

        Actually this was perceived as a “containment”of China by the US through its allies, Japan, Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines, Thailand and Australia. This perception is fuelling the sabre rattling by some military and media people in China.

        That is why Clinton had to walk a fine line, not appearing to be overly hostile because that would have fuelled further antagonism. The US has a delicate balancing act: to let China grow prosperous without becoming belligerent as opposed to the containment policy against Germany during that nation’s rapid industrialization which led to the second world war.

  • UPnnGrd

    Do not forget Japan.  USA wanting the sea lanes open is just as much to get the sea lanes open along keeping a lid on a nuclear arms race.  Japan!!!! USA does not want Japan to cite “loss of the sea lanes” for Japan to load up on nuclear-tipped missiles.

  • The US is fully committed to maintaining freedom of navigation in the South China Sea because the lane is extremely important to its military and economic interests. South China Sea is a major artery that serves as a blood line vital to the life and existence of the American nation if it wants to retain its super power status among the nations of the world. Therefore it will never remain neutral in any shooting/military confrontation between the Philippines and China that could occur in the West Philippine Sea.

    The reason is simple. If China, by reason of its vastly superior military strength, involves itself into any shooting incident with our forces anywhere in the West Philippine Sea, China in effect is asserting its control of the sea lane the American considers vital to their economic and military interests. In view of that, the US can’t and will not just stand by and watch idly doing nothing. Sure as the sun rises tomorrow, they will act. There is no room for America to stay neutral when their national interest is threatened. My 2-cents. 

  • UPnnGrd

    That’s great! —> SIXTY YEARS  pa pala for Pilipinas defense to get it strong against mapmakers.

    Then PersiNoy can let the future presidents BongBong or Boksingero-Pacquiao or Estrade-this or Estrada-that or another Arroyo raise the taxes necessary to have pesos/dollars/euros/Yen  to buy quality warmongering equipment.   PersiNoynoy should keep his promise to the Makati Business Club —- NO  INCREASE IN TAXES!!!

    Now…  nuclear power for Pilipinas industries and for jobs-jobs-jobs…. maybe he can think more about this.

  • GabbyD

    the spratly’s isnt about sea lanes. its about energy. 

    • Manuelbuencamino


      The South China Sea is a vital seaway. It’s importance as a seaway pre-dates the era of oil. Trade and commerce through the SCS has been going on since time immemorial and it will continue until the end of time. 

      Now of course there is a possibility that the SCS might dry up tomorrow. If that occurs, then I will agree with you and put oil rather than freedom of navigation as the primary issue in the SCS. But honestly I think we will pump out all the oil there before the SCS dries up or we will discover new non-fossil fuel technologies before the SCS dries up.

      Here’s a simple thinking guide: 
      1. Oil is a finite resource necessary for current technology. 
      2. Technological breakthroughs could render oil obsolete. 
      3. Freedom of navigation, on the other hand, will always remain a prerequisite for trade and commerce. 

      In short, oil is important for today’s needs but freedom of navigation is important for all time. 

      • GabbyD

        thats true. my point is simple and different.

        US policy, from the POV of preserving her self interest, and the health of the region:
        1) let countries preen. let out steam
        2) as long as sealanes are open, there is no short term gain from interceeding heavily now. whoever “owns” the spratly’s as long as the sea lanes are open, it doesnt matter (in the short run)
        3) suppose there is energy there. if its small quantities, the US wont mind (for the reasons u discussed, tech, etc)
        4) if its a huge depository, the US largely wont mind as long as the country/company doing the extractation wont exercise too much monopoly power, keep resources in the country, restrain trade, etc. 

        • Manuelbuencamino

          exactly. the importance of free navigation can be demonstrated thus:

          suppose you discovered a huge reserve of oil, you will still need free navigation in order to be able to take it to the market. 

      • GabbyD

        also, off-topic:
        i left a comment at joeam’s blog. arche responded to your comments.

        i think its an interesting dialogue. as long as we refrain from name-calling, discuss the issue, i think there is value in continuing the dialogue.

    • baycas


      MB is right.

      Maritime choke points [or, otherwise considered sea lines of communication (SLOC)] are very important.

      An inkling to this was best expressed by Sir Walter Raleigh:

      “Whosoever commands the seas, commands the trade; whosoever commands the trade of the world, commands the riches of the world and consequently the world itself.”

      • GabbyD

        my point is, as long as the sea lanes are open, whoever owns the resources of the area doesnt matter to the US, unless, its a huge reserve. this is coz no matter who owns it, they will allow passage anyway.

        • What is this, I am becoming a yes man now. Agreeing with GabbyD. It is a big sea. I look out that direction from my island and I can’t see anything but water. Two separate issues. Islands and sea lanes. China will never block the sea lanes, I believe. They might occupy islands.

        • baycas

          So, we go back to your first statement…

          It’s about sea lanes.

          U.S., since time immemorial, wants it open.

          While China also wants the sea lanes open, she is fraught by inconsistencies and incoordination among the actors within her ranks…

          We are uncertain of her primary interest:

          Petrol from the region, Power over the region, Peace in the region, Piece of the region or, could it be, the entire Philippines???