The top U.S. naval officer has expressed concerns that China may be expanding its presence at Scarborough Shoal.
Back in 2012, Scarborough Shoal was at the center of a major stand-off between China and the Philippines that presaged the current period of instability in the South China Sea. Though Beijing’s assertiveness, as demonstrated through its artificial island-building and construction activities, is today largely focused primarily in the Spratly Islands, the 2012 stand-off presaged much of what was to come in the South China Sea. In 2016, Scarborough Shoal could soon to be returning to headlines.
Located in waters disputed between China, Taiwan, and the Philippines, west of the Philippines’ Luzon island, Scarborough Shoal is now being cited by U.S. government officials as a possible next site for increased Chinese activity in the South China Sea. Speaking to Reuters, Admiral John Richardson, the U.S. Navy’s chief of naval operations, noted that there is increased Chinese “surface ship activity” near Scarborough Shoal. He adds that there is additionally some “survey type of activity” in the area, noting that it was “an area of concern … a next possible area of reclamation.”
Richardson said he didn’t know if Chinese activity at the shoal had anything to do with the pending decision at the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague in Philippines v. China, a case filed by Manila that has asked the international court to rule on China’s excessive maritime claims in the South China Sea. Most observers expect a ruling that will be almost entirely favorable to the Philippines’ position on the status of features currently occupied by China in the Spratlys. Expected in late-May or early-June 2016, the decision will be an important moment for China, which could find itself in contravention of an international court ruling given many of its activities in the South China Sea.