“Una kang naging akin!”
This powerful line from a classic movie bearing the same title released during the early 90’s came into my mind as an appropriate ‘hugot’ with regards to the West Philippine Sea dispute that remained unresolved until now. It’s supposed to be simple, our records show it’s ours and even the arbitration ruled it to be ours. Then why?
The West Philippines Sea (WPS) forms part the Pacific Ocean which covers the 200 nautical miles from the baseline along the Western side of the Philippines. It stretches from the Karimata and Malacca Straits to the strait of Taiwan of around 3,500,000 sq.km. that encloses the claimed but disputed part of the Philippine territory –the Scarborough Shoal and Spratly Islands.
The cognizance of West Philippine Sea may be traced back before the pre-Spanish Era. During the trial held by United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) in Geneva, Switzerland, the defense counsel of our country presented a Philippine Map, believed to have been crafted before the Spanish Era in 1800’s, reflecting the South China Sea (now known as the West Philippine Sea). This evidence was accepted by the UNCLOS Committee.
On June 11, 1978, President Ferdinand E. Marcos, by virtue of the Presidential Decree No. 1596, asserted that the islands designated as Kalayaan Group of Islands and comprising most of the Spratly Islands are subject to the sovereignty of the Philippines. By virtue of the Presidential Decree No. 1599 issued on 11 June 1978, the Philippines claimed an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) up to 200 nautical miles (370 kms) from the baselines from which their territorial sea is measured.
During the latter parts of 1980’s, our government’s claims on such islands were lost little by little. While country like China who has claims on West Philippine Sea imposed stronger opposition. The succeeding administrations after the Marcos’s regime were never given favors to be acknowledged of their claims over the West Philippine Sea.
In 1999, the Philippine Navy said that they intentionally aground BRP Sierra Madre to impose our sovereignty on the said Islands. This was confirmed in 2001 by the Presidential Communication Speaker Jose de Venecia Jr. during a Press Conference in Malacañang. China issued official protest afterward, as the Philippines refused to withdraw the ship. Since then, China regularly deployed service ships along those waters with territorial conflicts.
To understand further the disputes concerning West Philippine Sea, it is elaborated in the case of the Philippines v. China (PCA case number 2013–19), also known as the South China Sea Arbitration. It is an arbitration case brought by the Republic of the Philippines against the People’s Republic of China (PRC) under Annex VII to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) concerning certain issues in the South China Sea including the legality of China’s “nine-dotted line” claim.
The Philippines contended that the “nine-dotted line” claim by China is invalid because it violates the UNCLOS agreements about exclusive economic zones and territorial seas.
Besides, Father Pedro Murillo Velarde in 1734 came up with the Murillo Map, we call Mother of all Philippine Maps, which shows Scarborough Shoals with a name for the first time, Panakot. That was 213 years before China drew the nine-dash lines in 1947. For more than two (2) centuries, before even Chinese thought of nine-dash lines, we already called Scarborough Shoals Panakot.
On the other hand, China refused to participate in the arbitration, stating that several treaties with the Philippines stipulate that bilateral negotiations be used to resolve border disputes. It also accuses the Philippines of violating the voluntary Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, made in 2002 between ASEAN and China, which also stipulated bilateral negotiations as the means of resolving border and other disputes. China issued a position paper in December 2014 arguing the dispute was not subject to arbitration because it was ultimately a matter of sovereignty, not exploitation rights.
Its refusal did not prevent the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) tribunal from proceeding with the case.
ASEAN in general, and Malaysia in particular, have been keen to ensure that the territorial disputes within the South China Sea do not escalate into armed conflict. As such, Joint Development Authorities have been set up in areas of overlapping claims to jointly develop the area and divide the profits equally without settling the issue of sovereignty over the area. Generally, China has preferred to resolve competing claims bilaterally, while some ASEAN countries prefer multilateral talks, believing that they are disadvantaged in bilateral negotiations with the much larger China and that because many countries claim the same territory only multilateral talks could effectively resolve the competing claims.
The character of the Philippines’ and China’s claims is now different. We don’t have mere claims; we now have rights. Our rights trump China’s claims. We won, it lost, as a Hague tribunal “has already ruled with finality” on the issue.
However, our situation now is, as Acting Chief Justice Antonio Carpio stated in a Headstart interview on Monday, March 5, 2018:
“It’s like you have a land, you own it, somebody builds a house there and claims that he owns it also. So you go to court and finally the court says you own the land. Unfortunately, the guy who built the house doesn’t want to leave. So the question of ownership is finished; it’s terminated already. You own it, because the court said you own it. It’s now a question of compliance – how to get him out of that lot. That is the situation in the West Philippine Sea.”
What if China will not comply? How long are we going to wait for them to comply and vacate our territory?
Truth is, I doubt it. Why? China has an “empire mentality” with expansionist ambitions. The West Philippine sea is crucial to its plan, both for expansion and intent to control international trade.
The militarization of the area is in its advanced stage.
In 2013, China began dredging the seafloor to build artificial islands on the disputed area. It destroyed 1.2 square kilometers of protected coral reefs in the process.
By 2015, a three-kilometer runway appeared on Fiery Cross Reefs. More runways are apparently being built in Subi and Mischief Reefs along with a berthing dock for large naval vessels. Military grade radars were erected in Cuarteron, Gaven, Johnson, and Hughes Reefs. This will enable China to monitor air and sea traffic in any point of the waters.
On Woody Island, two battalions of missile fighter aircrafts were spotted. This is also where the fuel depot is located.
Despite satellite images showing proof positive that China is building naval and areal military bases, China still maintains that it is not constructing anything militaristic in nature.
Not satisfied with what it has already taken, China continues to annex more and more islets in the disputed area using what it calls the “Cabbage Strategy.” The strategy involves surrounding islands with as much ships as possible to seal it off from food, water, and other supplies. Sooner or later, inhabitants abandon the island leaving it free for China to take over.
In a worrying turn of events, China as recently and conveniently expanded its nine-dash line to a 10-dash line, now encompassing Taiwan. This has added to the tension in the region.
Last year, former White House chief strategist, Steve Bannon, went on record with this statement: “The United States is certain to go to war versus China within the next 10 years.” The statement was said in reaction to China’s militarization of the West Philippine Sea and its relentless grab of territories belonging to other sovereign nations.
Interestingly, China has never made an official claim for the territory before the International Tribunal for the Laws of the Sea (ITLOS), as most claimants must do. Instead, it simply grabbed the territories from the sovereign nations who have pending claims over parts of seas. The claimants include the Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei.
China is a signatory to the 1994 United Nation’s convention of the Laws of the Seas. As such, the emerging superpower, along with 120 nations, have agreed that waters and islands within 200 nautical miles from the shores of a particular nation forms part of its domain or Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). Areas not belonging to any nation’s EEZ is regarded as “International Waters” and as such, are governed by United Nations Maritime Laws.
The Scarborough Shoal is a mere 120 nautical miles away from Zambales while it is more than 500 nautical miles away from China. Yet, China claims it as part of its own EEZ in blatant defiance of the UN accord.
In a statement, it said that it rejects arbitration and will continue to assert its historical claims over the territories even if it defies international laws. China’s actions are akin to a bully who grabs what it wants simply because it can.
On July 12 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitration published an arbitration award by the tribunal. The decision was in favor to the claims of the Philippines , wherein it was concluded that between the Philippines and China, there was no legal basis for China to claim historic rights to resources, in excess of the rights provided for by the Convention, within the sea areas falling within the ‘9-dash line.’ It has been decided that the Philippines has exclusive sovereign rights over the West Philippine Sea and that China’s “nine-dash line” is invalid.
Aside from the fact that it is really ours, there’s another why that we need to emphasize. Why do we need to fight for the West Philippine Sea?
The West Philippine Sea greatly benefits the Philippines. It has remarkably beneficial values to the country. An area of about 381,000 square kilometers of maritime space holds a vast of resources where Filipinos has the right to enjoy such as fish, oil, gas and mineral resources.
Aquatic resources such as fisheries, turtles, giant clams, and other useful invertebrates are abundant in West Philippine Sea. Filipino fishermen from Kalayaan Island get the primary source of their income from the resources of the West Philippine Sea as it provides for their living.
The West Philippine Sea consists of shoals, atolls, low islands and marine waters at various depths to 4,000 meters. Atoll is a ring shaped coral reef including coral rim that encircles lagoon partially or completely. They are crucial structures of the sea. Atolls store nutrients, fish and biodiversity.
It is also believed that the West Philippine Sea holds massive amounts of oil and resources. According to a report by the United States Energy Information Administration, the Reed Bank (Recto Bank) could hold up to 5.4 barrel and 55.1 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. It is said that the energy source from Malampaya field, which is the nation’s main source of natural gas, will run out of gas in 10 years. The Reed Bank is being considered as a replacement to it and must be developed.
With that being said, we now have a tangible answer to another big why: Why does China covet the West Philippine Sea?
The obvious reason is for its natural resources! Beneath the disputed area is an estimated 11 billion barrels of oil, 190 trillion feet of natural gas, and 10% of the world’s fishing resources.
The second reason is to further expand its territory using the “continuous annex strategy.” See, the more islands China claims as its own, the more it can invoke ITLOS laws to further annex another 200 kilometers of EEZ. The third reason is insidious. The West Philippine Sea is where one-third of world trade (valued at $5 trillion) passes through. It is the channel by which 2.2 billion consumers can be accessed. To control the West Philippine Sea is to control global trade.
Many speculate that once China has fully militarized the area, it will be in the position to require all ocean vessels and aircrafts to obtain prior clearance before it can be allowed passage. They may even charge a toll like they do in the Panama Canal. In short, freedom of passage will no longer be a free right in the West Philippine Sea. This will give China unprecedented control over the flow of goods and people in the most populous region in the world.
China’s actions will bring forth tremendous consequences to the United States and the global community.
For the US, the loss of its right to passage in the disputed area will weaken its economic, political, and military sway in the Pacific Rim. It is the last nail in the proverbial coffin that will make it cede its status as the world’s lone superpower.
As for the EU, Australia, and the rest of the Americas, their free access to the largest markets in the world will be subject to Chinese “approval” and control.
For countries like the Philippines, Taiwan, Vietnam and Brunei — not only do we stand to lose our rights to the resources of the West Philippine Sea, we also lose our right to free navigation within our own waters. Worse, we bear the risk of increased territory grabs by China, even in our mainland. In fact, a Chinese newspaper recently published a story saying that parts of Palawan, while inhabited by Filipinos, are inevitable targets for Chinese invasion.
All these have caused tensions to escalate. War is in the air and nations are preparing for it.
The Unites States is intensifying its patrol over the disputed seas using sea-lanes 12 nautical miles from anyone’s sovereign territory. This is known as “innocent passage.” Missile destroyers have been deployed and B1 Bombers are on standby in Australia. American military presence is meant to send a mitigating signal to China.
Joint military exercises between the US and Japan and the US and the Philippines are ongoing. Japan is said to have B22 fighter jets deployed in strategic bases in case the situation escalates.
Vietnam has prepared for the eventuality by acquiring six Russian-made submarines. Each submarine is armed with 50 missiles that can travel below the radar horizon. Singapore, Malaysia, and Indonesia are accelerating their respective arming programs as well.
For its part, India is closely monitoring the situation and has set- up several satellite observatories, a number of them are located in Vietnam.
China is testing how far it can go. It has recently threatened to declare an Air Identification Zone over the waters wherein all aircrafts flying over the airspace must first obtain Chinese permission. Clearly, its plan to control all movements within the West Philippine Sea is well in motion.
Philippines v. China must be read in relation to Art. XII, Sec. 2 of our Constitution: “The State shall protect the nation’s marine wealth in its archipelagic waters, territorial sea, and exclusive economic zone, and reserve its use and enjoyment exclusively to Filipino citizens.” The decision is the legal baseline for our foreign policy in the West Philippine Sea. This is a nonnegotiable, prepolitical constitutional mandate for every administration.
In consideration of this, I can’t help but notice the passive response of our country towards this issue thus the birth of other whys. Why is Malacañang plays footsies with China? Why does it soft-pedals on our sovereign claims and why it has allowed the Chinese to have their way over our shoals and islets?
These are but some of those whys that we can only speculate. The reason might be obvious such as our fear towards war, it could be that we are only biding our time while some hidden plans are in the works or maybe it could be because of some twisted or underground conspiracy like some wanted to believe. I just find it bothersome to see ourselves and our country to that state of apparent powerlessness.
Everyone knows that the Philippines have the rightful claim over the West Philippine Sea. That should have settled it. Just like an old movie twisted with a love triangle, or rather a love pentagon in this case, everyone knows how the story should end. If this conundrum would be such, the Philippines will fight valiantly until the end and would emerge victorious as the rightful owner. But like the changing of times, the reality, just like the movies, evolved to another trend of their own. Today, anything is possible. Evil is idolized and mistresses get the man. Nowadays, news rests on our fingertips, easy to read and easier to fake. A fact is a clay, malleable to those with sufficient muscle. Have you heard about truth, the ones they said would set us free? Mr. Plain truth is no longer enough. Actually, he lies imprisoned somewhere, impotent and powerless, relieving his glorified years and asking himself over and over why.
Indeed, the big why in our seas.