PANABO, Philippines — Dazzled by the opportunities offered by China’s vast and increasingly prosperous populace, Renante Flores Bangoy, the owner of a small banana plantation here in the southern Philippines, decided three years ago to stop selling to multinational fruit corporations and stake his future on Chinese appetites. Through a local exporter, he started shipping all his fruit to China.
Today, his estate on the tropical island of Mindanao is scattered with heaps of rotting bananas. For seven weeks now — ever since an aging U.S.-supplied Philippine warship squared off with Chinese vessels near a disputed shoal in the South China Sea — Bangoy has not been able to sell a single banana to China.
Timeline: Key moments in the territorial disputes and intermittent skirmishes.
(The Washington Post/Staff reports) - China, Philippines standoff in South China Sea
He is a victim of sudden Chinese restrictions on banana imports from the Philippines that China says have been imposed for health reasons but that Bangoy and other growers view as retaliation for a recent flare-up in contested waters around Scarborough Shoal.
“They just stopped buying,” Bangoy said. “It is a big disaster.”
His plight points to the volatile nationalist passions that lie just beneath the placid surface of Asia’s economic boom. It also underscores how quickly quarrels rooted in the distant past can disrupt the promise of a new era of shared prosperity and peace between rising China and its neighbors.
Scarborough Shoal, a cluster of coral reefs and islets, lies more than 500 miles from the Chinese mainland and 140 miles off the northern coast of the Philippines, well within a 200-nautical-mile “exclusive economic zone” provided for by the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea. But China — which claims most of the South China Sea, including portions also claimed by the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan — insists that the shoal has been part of its territory since at least the 13th century and points to old maps that mark it as Chinese.
For a while, it looked as if the quarrel — which began in April when a Philippine warship confronted Chinese fishermen near the shoal and stirred a surge of nationalist fury in both countries — could tip into armed conflict between Asia’s most potent military power and one of its puniest. China last year spent $129 billion on its armed forces, 58 times as much as the Philippines, according to data compiled by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. The flagship of Manila’s navy, the boat that intercepted the Chinese fishermen, is a 45-year-old hand-me-down from the U.S. Coast Guard.
Manila does have one potent asset: a 1951 mutual defense treaty with Washington that the Philippines believes puts the world’s most powerful navy on its side. The United States has a policy of not taking a position on territorial disputes in the South China Sea and has been ambiguous about what it would do in the event of a conflict. President Benigno Aquino III visited the State Department and the White House on Friday to press for clarity on U.S. intentions.
Trade as ‘foreign policy tool’
Although rich in fish and long used as a shelter by Chinese and Philippine fishermen, Scarborough Shoal has no major economic or strategic value. But it has acquired great significance for both countries as a test case for issues of sovereignty that will help determine who gets to exploit potentially large reserves of natural gas and oil in other contested areas of the South China Sea.