By Selena Yao
The West Philippine Sea (also known as the South China Sea by most countries and the East Sea by Vietnam, but you can call it by whatever floats your boat really – *pun totally intended*) continues to be stripped from us. It and the thousands of little islands that lie within it have long been the center of an international territorial dispute between the Philippines, China, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, Taiwan, Singapore, Brunei, Thailand, and Cambodia. The archipelagic islands are mostly uninhabited but are important channels of transportation. Highly abundant in marine resources, minerals, and supposedly, oil and natural gas, these islands may very well be a “seabed of wealth” for the nation that can claim sovereignty over them. However, because no official agreement exists to resolve the disputes over the West Philippine Sea, maritime clashes between the nations claiming ownership over the area are not uncommon.
Among all the countries contesting claims in the region, China is the one that the Philippines has the most heated tensions with. Invoking the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) which states that maritime waters within 200 nautical-miles of an archipelago’s edges belong to its exclusive economic zone and continental shelf, the Philippines lays claim to two major areas in the sea. They are the Spratlys Islands (Kalayaan Group of Islands) and Scarborough Shoal (Panatag Shoal or Bajo de Masinloc). China argues that the UNCLOS has no jurisdiction over these islands because these are not considered to be sea, but land. China is steadfast in claiming full ownership based on historical maps or more specifically, the ‘nine-dashed line’. This nine-dashed line dates back to a 1947 map and is basically a U-shaped curve that encompasses essentially the whole sea.
In April 2012, a standoff in Scarborough Shoal occurred between the Philippines and China, when several Chinese fishing boats were seen illegally docked by the surrounding waters. Following the standoff, China ended up seizing full control of the shoal, and tensions between the two countries have only intensified further. There is a continuous presence of Chinese vessels in the area as well as the rest of the sea, for both fishing and surveillance. Reports of local fishermen being harassed and attacked by Chinese sea patrollers are frequent, too.
China is uncompromising, with a powerful military force backing the country up. The Philippines doesn’t really have anything to offer in that department, and after numerous failed attempts to negotiate with China, has decided to settle the maritime dispute in front of the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS) instead. In March 2014, the Philippines submitted a 4,000-page long memorial document to the ITLOS, defending its claims over the territories and invalidating China’s arguments. China has refused to cooperate, stating that they are only open to settle the disputes through bilateral arrangements (the Philippines has maintained that a multilateral agreement is more appropriate due to several claimants). Until the ITLOS decides that it has true jurisdiction over the disputed territories (and hopefully it does), the Philippines cannot really do much but sit back and watch China take control over more areas in the sea.
In November 2002, China and the ASEAN claimants signed the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea with the goal of reducing the tension between the parties. Signatories agree to abide by the rules of international law (including the UNCLOS), to allow freedom of navigation in the sea, and to “exercise self-restraint in the conduct of activities that would complicate or escalate disputes and affect peace and stability”. The last provision includes “refraining from action of inhabiting on the presently uninhabited islands, reefs, shoals, cays, and other features.” Unfortunately, beginning in early 2013, big-scale illegal reclamation work done by China has been observed on some of the reefs in the area. These are Mischief (Panganiban) Reef, Fiery Cross (Kagitingan) Reef, Keenan (Chigua) Reef, Johnson (Mabini) Reef, and Gaven (Burgos) Reef. The reclamation, which is five times the size of Rizal Park, is progressing at an alarmingly rapid pace. An airstrip that is apparently large enough to accommodate military aircraft is near completion on Fiery Cross Reef and only makes China’s motives even more questionable. Leaders all over the world have spoken out against the reclamation works, but no action has been taken so far.
This imprudent move by China is not a joke. It is clearly violating the 2002 Declaration on Conduct, which China officially agreed to abide by. The reclamation is estimated to destroy 311 acres of coral reefs, undoubtedly damaging the area’s rich biodiversity. The Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources pegs the Philippines’ losses stemming from the reclamation at P4.8 billion – and that’s them being conservative. Some have also said that these illegal artificial islands may be an attempt to shift the dispute settlement in favor of China. It’s stressful and anxiety-inducing to think about the potentially serious threat that this poses to the national security of the Philippines (and the other claimant countries too). With some reefs only miles away from us, the concern over China’s increasing aggression is not misplaced. Who really knows what they are capable of doing? Time and time again, they have proven the lengths they will go to defend themselves. With so much to lose or gain, China won’t be backing down from this battle – but I hope that despite the odds being stacked against the Philippines, neither will we.