Facing Up to China’s Realpolitik Approach in the South China Sea Dispute: The Case of the 2012 Scarborough Shoal Stand-off and Its Aftermath

Published date01 August 2016
Date01 August 2016
Subject MatterArticles
Facing Up to China’s
Realpolitik Approach
in the South China Sea
Dispute: The Case of the
2012 Scarborough Shoal
Stand-off and Its Aftermath
Renato Cruz De Castro1
This article examines the 2012 Scarborough Shoal stand-off between the
Philippines and China as a case of Beijing’s application of realpolitik in resolving
the South China Sea dispute. It discusses the legal basis of the Philippines’ claim
on the Spratly Islands and the Scarborough Shoal. However, since 2010, China
has aggressively challenged this claim by building up its navy; undermining the
other claimant states diplomatically and militarily; and engaging the Philippines
in a maritime brinkmanship game. The 2012 Scarborough Shoal stand-off is the
tipping point in China’s realpolitik moves against the Philippines in the disputed
area. Lasting for two months, the stand-off has since strained Philippines–
China bilateral relations; strained bilateral ties have further deteriorated as China
intensifies its efforts to consolidate its expansive maritime claim, and the Aquino
Administration applies a balancing policy towards an assertive power. In conclu-
sion, the article argues that confronted with China’s realpolitik tactic during the
Scarborough Shoal stand-off, the Philippines has applied a balancing strategy that
draws the United States and Japan into the fray. Interestingly, these external
maritime powers are anxious to curtail China’s growing strategic clout in East
Asia. At present, China is caught in its own security dilemma as it faces increasing
American and Japanese naval presence and pressure in the South China Sea.
South China Sea dispute, Scarborough Shoal crisis, realpolitik, Philippine foreign
policy, territorial dispute
Department of International Studies, De La Salle University, Philippines.
Corresponding author:
Renato Cruz De Castro, Department of International Studies, De La Salle University, Manila 0922,
E-mail: renato.decastro@dlsu.edu.ph
Journal of Asian Security
and International Affairs
3(2) 157–182
2016 SAGE Publications India
Private Limited
SAGE Publications
DOI: 10.1177/2347797016645452
158 Journal of Asian Security and International Affairs 3(2)
During the 2012 Philippines–United States Bilateral Strategic Dialogue in
Washington DC, Philippines’ Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario made this
unprecedented but honest remark:
It is terribly painful to hear the international media accurately describing the poor state
of the Philippine armed forces. But more painful is the fact that it is true, and we only
have ourselves to blame for it. For the Philippines to be minimally reliant upon a U.S.
regional partner … it therefore behooves us to resort to all possible means to build at
the very least a most minimal credible defense posture. (Agence France Presse, 2012,
pp. 1–20)
Candidly, Secretary Del Rosario conveyed the Philippines’ vulnerability and utter
desperation in its impasse with a militarily powerful China at the Scarborough
Shoal, north of the disputed Spratly Islands, 124 nautical miles from Luzon, and
well within the country’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ).
The stand-off began on 10 April 2012 when the Philippine Navy’s (PN’s) flag-
ship, the BRP Gregorio Del Pilar, tried to apprehend several Chinese fishing
boats at the Scarborough Shoal. However, two Chinese maritime surveillance
vessels arrived and prevented the arrest of the Chinese fishermen who were
hauling corals, clams and live sharks into their boats. Fearing that the incident
might escalate into a dangerous armed confrontation with the Chinese patrol
vessels, the Philippines defused the tension by replacing its surface combatant
with a smaller coast guard vessel. Instead of reciprocating, China raised the
stakes by deploying the Yuzheng 310—the most advanced and largest patrol
vessel equipped with machine guns, light cannons and electronic sensors. When
the Philippines filed a diplomatic protest, the Chinese Embassy in Manila
contended that the three Chinese surveillance vessels in Scarborough Shoal were
‘in the area fulfilling the duties of safeguarding Chinese maritime rights and
interests’. It added that the shoal ‘is an integral part of the Chinese territory and
the waters around the traditional fishing area for Chinese fishermen’ (Hookway,
2012, p. 2). Clearly, this incident underscored an international reality—Chinese
economic and naval power cast a long shadow over the Philippines and Vietnam,
which are at the forefront of a maritime conflict with China in the South China
Sea (Chong, 2012, p. 1).
The 2012 Scarborough Shoal stand-off reflects the historic pattern of Chinese
protracted, low-intensity and incremental moves to gain control of a large portion
of the South China Sea. China’s maritime strategy involves ‘drawing a line in the
sea using civilian maritime vessels to challenge these littoral states, and leaving
them with the risky option of escalating matters by resorting to military means
which will have dire consequences since the People’s Liberation Army’s Navy
(PLAN) ships are lurking in the background’ (ibid.). This stratagem aims to put
the onus on the use of force on smaller littoral states, outclassed by Chinese naval
prowess—particularly by driving them to the brink of a naval confrontation to
resolve what is essentially a maritime jurisdiction issue (ibid.). In 2012, China

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