The Scarborough Shoal Dispute

Location and Background

The Scarborough Shoal (also known in English as the Scarborough Reef) is a series of small rocks and islands which are formed into a triangle shape in the South China Sea. The largest island features a lagoon and is around sixty square miles in area, while many of the rocks are so small they protrude only a metre or so from the sea at low tide and are completely submerged when the tide is high (1). The deep waters around the shoal make it a productive fishing area, rich in marine life (1), and the lagoon also contains many commercially valuable shellfish and sea cucumbers (1). It is also thought that natural resources, including oil and gas may be present in the waters around the shoal, with the BBC stating that there could be as much as 23 billion barrels of oil and 900 trillion cubic feet of natural gas in the area. In addition to this, the rocks and islands provide a form of natural shelter which can be used by fishermen during rough seas (2).

The Scarborough Shoal is apparently named after the Scarborough, a tea trade ship owned by the East India Company which they had named after the North Yorkshire town. In the 1700s the shoal was unmarked on maps and charts of the sea, and in 1784 the Scarborough was wrecked on the shoal and all on board perished. From this point on the name Scarborough Shoal was given to the area in memory of the fate of the Scarborough. However, there appears to be scant information on the existence of this ship, and all evidence of its existence appears to rely on a single source from 1801 (3). Despite this shaky basis the name Scarborough Shoal has stuck, in the English-speaking world at least.

The Chinese/Philippines Dispute

Today, the shoal is the source of an ongoing and so far unresolved dispute between the People’s Republic of China and the Philippines, with both countries claiming that the shoal lies within their territory and saying they have the exclusive rights to access its waters. China, which now refers to the shoal as Huangyan Island, make a historical claim to the area, stating that they can trace their ownership of the area back to the Yuan Dynasty of the 1200s (4).

Scarborough Shoal Map
Map showing the distance between the Scarborough Shoal (Scarborough Reef on the map) and China and the Philippines.

The Philippines claim the area on the basis of geography, as it is much closer to the Philippines’ main island of Luzon which contains the capital, Manila, but lies over 500 miles from China. To make the situation even more complicated Taiwan also makes a claim to the Scarborough Shoal, and many other nations also use the waters as shipping lanes. In 1965 the Philippines constructed a lighthouse on the edge of the lagoon on the largest island of the shoal in an attempt to strengthen their claim to the territory, and have been effectively claiming the Scarborough Shoal as theirs since that date. But China claims that their links to the shoal can be traced back to the year 1279 when it was discovered by the Chinese astronomer  Guo Shoujing.

BRP Gregorio del Pilar
Main Picture: The Philippines Navy sent their most modern vessel, the ex-US coastguard ship the BRP Gregorio del Pilar which was constructed in the 1960s, to the Scarborough Shoal in 2012. It is pictured here on its maiden voyage as a Philippines Navy ship at Pearl Harbor in July 2011. Inset: The weaknesses of the Philippines Navy are underlined by the fact that they still use Second World War-era Cannon-class destroyer escort ships which were built by the USA in the 1940s and bought by the Philipines Navy in the late 1970s.

Following conflict at the comically-named Mischief Reef in the 1990s, China and the Philippines signed a code of conduct in 1995 which stated that all future disputes and disagreements in the South China Sea would be resolved by peaceful and diplomatic means (1). This agreement was short-lived, and only a few years later tensions between the two nations were rising considerably. By 1997 the Philippine Navy drove two Chinese vessels – which had supposedly sailed to the area to take part in an amateur international radio operation – away from the area. The Chinese vessels raised Chinese flags on the islands of the shoal, which Philippine Navy personnel removed (5). For the rest of the 1990s the Philippine authorities, usually backed up by vessels from their navy, drove away Chinese fishermen from the shoal, and often detained them for illegally fishing for endangered species or taking corals which were protected by law. Often tensions between the two countries would become inflamed when the Philippines detained Chinese fishermen for their offences (5). The Philippines also conducted ‘shows of force’ with warships and aircraft conducting live fire exercises near the shoal (5). Incidents like this continued throughout the 2000s, with neither side willing to back down in their claim to the Scarborough Shoal.

While the dispute over the shoal has been simmering for some time the events of 2012 saw the conflict rise to international prominence. In April of that year, eight Chinese fishing vessels moored in and around the lagoon within the Scarborough Shoal. The Philippines sent their largest and most modern navy vessel, the BRP Gregorio del Pilar to survey the fishermen. Eventually, an armed investigation team set off from the Philippine vessel to investigate the Chinese fishermen and found that they had collected coral, giant clams and live sharks – all of which are legally protected under Philippine law. But several Chinese Maritime Surveillance ships arrived at the scene and manoeuvred themselves between the Gregorio del Pilar and the Chinese fishing vessels, preventing the Philippine authorities from arresting the fishermen or confiscating their catch (6). This in turn led to the Chinese authorities increasing their own number of vessels in the area, until by May 2012 there were around thirty Chinese ships in the waters around the shoal (although it must be noted that almost all of these ships were civilian fisheries ships, rather than Chinese Navy vessels). Shortly after this China denied that it was mobilising its South China Sea Fleet or any other military units for armed conflict over the Scarborough Shoal (7). Despite calls from the international community for calm the situation continued to escalate throughout 2012. In July a fleet of around thirty Chinese fishing boats sailed right past the shoal, defying an order from the Philippine government instructing them not to do so, and in August the Chinese blocked off the mouth of the lagoon on the shoal to fishing vessels from other nations (8).

Further Actions and Cyber Attacks

Many Filipinos and Philippine businesses have begun a boycott of Chinese goods and businesses due to the conflict (9). Although it is recognised that this will not dent China’s economic power it is hoped it will draw attention to the Philippines’ claim to the shoal (9). There has also been a ban on Philippine fruit exports to China, and in turn, China has banned holiday tours to the Philippines. Chinese hackers have also carried out cyber attacks on Filipino university and newspaper websites that are thought to have been a response to the Scarborough Shoal situation. This led to retaliatory attacks from Filipino hackers, with the Inquirer Global Nation reporting that a group calling themselves ‘Anonymous #OccupyPhilippines’ hacked the China University Media Union website so that the phrase “Chinese government is clearly retarded. Scarborough Shoal is ours!” was displayed on the homepage for a short period of time (10).

The Conflict Continues

Liaoning Aircraft Carrier
The Liaoning is a 67,000-ton, 304-metre-long aircraft carrier which is now owned by China. The vessel started life as a Russian Admiral Kuznetsov class aircraft carrier and was towed to China as a stripped-out hulk and extensively refitted by the Chinese. It entered active service in 2012. Although it apparently lacks the advanced radar and other features of more modern aircraft carriers the possession of vessel of this type underlines Chinese military power.

The Philippines have little choice other than to appeal to the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea to make a ruling over the Scarborough Shoal and hope it goes in their favour. China is not receptive to this course of action and maintains that it only negotiates directly with other nations (11). Some commentators have claimed that the two nations could come to war over the Scarborough Shoal (12). If this were the case the navy of the Philippines would be dwarfed by China’s, and there would be little doubt of who would win in a head-on confrontation between the nations.

Chinese Navy
The powerful Chinese Navy would easily overpower the naval forces of the Philippines if the dispute over the Scarborough Reef ever came to an all-out war.

The Philippines does have a Mutual Defence Treaty with the United States, meaning that the USA would in theory be obliged to aid the Philippines in an armed conflict with China. However, the strategic usefulness of the Philippines to the USA has massively declined since the end of the Cold War, and it would be highly unlikely that the USA would get involved in any kind of conflict with China – especially if the Chinese only used force to take the uninhabited Scarborough Shoal and did not threaten any other Philippine territory (13). As of winter 2012, there were no Filipino warships in the Scarborough Shoal region, but the Philippines stressed that their claim over the shoal was as strong as ever. In the early weeks of 2013 no resolution to the conflict appears to be in sight, and both nations still strongly hold the claim that the Scarborough Shoal is theirs.


  1. Zou Keyuan, (1999), Scarborough Reef: A New Flashpoint in Sino-Philippine Relations? IBRU Boundary and Security Bulletin.
  2. China Ropes off Scarborough Shoal – Global Nation Enquirer. 
    Unknown Authour (1801), The Oriental Navigator: Or, New Directions for Sailing to and from the East Indies, China, New Holland. London, UK.
  3. Scarborough Shoal According to Manila, Beijing –
  4. Scarborough Shoal Standoff: A Timeline – Global Nation Enquirer.
  5. Standoff at Scarborough Shoal: Implications for US-China Relations –
  6. China Denies Preparing for War Over South China Sea Shoal – BBC News.
  7. China, Philippines and  Panatag Shoal – Global Nation Enquirer.
  8. Albay Gov Renews Call for Boycott of China Products – Global Nation Enquirer.
  9. Hackers Bring PH-China Dispute to Cyberspace – Global Nation Enquirer.
  10. Q&A: South China Sea Dispute – BBC News.
  11. Scarborough Shoal Standoff Could Lead to War –
  12. The Diplomat, Could The US Get Sucked Into War? 15 May 2012.

Note: This article was written in early 2013 and has been updated in 2014. Events which have taken place since this date will not be reflected in the text above.