Diaoyu Islands

Upside and downside seen in Beijing's move on Scarborough Shoal

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 13 March, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 13 March, 2013, 7:31am

A sensible move to lower risks or a sharp new tool to assert sovereignty - analysts in the Philippines are hoping for the former but fear the latter as they digest China's consolidation of its maritime agencies under one civilian command to patrol its disputed borders.

The Philippine government - locked in a bitter territorial dispute with China over the Scarborough Shoal - has yet to comment officially on China's move to place its rapidly expanding coastguard-style forces under one roof, but analysts have noted both positives and negatives.

"There will be less risk of armed confrontation," said Aileen Baviera, professor of China studies and international relations and a former dean of the University of the Philippines' Asian Centre.

She told the South China Morning Post that Beijing observers, such as the International Crisis Group, had earlier blamed China's "reactive assertiveness" on "too many agencies involved in the operations in the South China Sea; and part of the problem was, there was no co-ordination among them. Each had its own mandate they were trying to fulfil, apparently without sufficient guidance from the central government."

"This move might be seen positively if it would mean greater co-ordination among Chinese agencies on policy and not so much on operational issues," Baviera said.

This move might be seen positively if it would mean greater co-ordination among Chinese agencies on policy and not so much on operational issues

The downside is that "a statement is being made that these are territorial waters and this is an assertion of sovereignty," she said.

If the intention behind strengthening China's maritime capability "is for a hardline assertion of sovereignty, disregarding legitimate interests of other countries, this development cannot be good" for the Philippines, she said. She also said she would rather not second-guess China's intention but "remain hopeful there would be reasonableness coming from them."

Benito Lim, a political analyst and professor of China studies at the Ateneo de Manila University, saw China's move in a positive light. "The intention is to gather intelligence; [under a unified command] other units cannot respond on their own without [that command] getting all the information together from the other units...and seeing the big picture," Lim said.

"If you allow one unit to make a decision, whereas another unit receives separate information, they might contradict each other [and] if the conclusion is wrong, a unit could drag you into a terrible event that could lead to a terrible confrontation," he said.