China, Philippines stoke island tensions By Joel D Adriano
MANILA - The Philippines stirred a diplomat hornet's nest with China and others
when it passed a new law this month that defines its national maritime
boundaries to include the long-disputed and potentially fuel-rich Spratly
islands in the South China Sea.
China's reaction to the so-called Philippine Archipelagic Baseline Law was
visceral, with officials in Beijing declaring the legislation "illegal and
invalid". It quickly sent a patrol ship to the area and canceled indefinitely a
high-level meeting scheduled between Philippine President Gloria
Macapagal-Arroyo and secretary general of China's National People's Congress Li
Jianguo to underscore its displeasure.
Vietnam also protested the bill. Its Foreign Affairs spokesperson
Le Dung was quoted in the Vietnamese press warning the Philippines against
taking any actions that could affect peace and stability in the region. The
Spratlys are part of more than 650 islands, islets, reefs, cays and atolls
comprising less than five square kilometers of land but which are spread over
more than 400,000 square kilometers of maritime area.
The islands are claimed in part by the Philippines, Malaysia, Taiwan and
Brunei, and in whole by China and Vietnam. About 45 of the islands are occupied
by small military forces from the competing claimants, apart from Brunei, which
has established a fishing zone that overlaps the southern Louisa Reef.
Competing countries base their claims variously on the continental shelf
principle, geography or historical grounds.
The Philippines contends the Kalayaan islands, a subset of the wider Spratlys,
was res nullius, which literally means property without an owner. It has
argued there was no effective sovereignty over the islands until the 1930s,
when France took possession of the islands, after which Japan invaded and took
control during World War II.
When Japan renounced their claim to the islands at the San Francisco Peace
Treaty in 1951, the relinquishment did not indicate any special beneficiary and
the islands became available for annexation, according to the official
Philippine version of history. Filipino Admiral Tomas Cloma did exactly that in
1956, when he established a protectorate over the islands with Pag-asa (Hope)
as its capital.
Since then, Manila has maintained a modest military presence on Pag-Asa Island,
one of the nine Kalayaan islands in the Spratlys which are geographically
closest to Palawan, the westernmost province of the Philippines. The government
has claimed the islands lie within its "archipelagic baseline", the only
claimant who can make such a geological claim, and Kalayaan was even officially
incorporated into Palawan in April 1972.
That history is contested by other claimants and has contributed to occasional
security flare-ups in the area. In trying to diffuse the latest row with China,
the Philippine government said that it had to craft a bill to comply with the
United Nations Commission on the Limits of the Continental (CLCS) Shelf, which
had a deadline of May 13.
The 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (CLOS) stated that a
coastal state could claim 200 nautical miles of jurisdiction beyond its land
boundaries. Under the CLCS definition of extended continental shelf, Filipino
officials argue, the Philippines may claim up to 350 nautical miles.
The areas claimed by the Philippines would have become part of the so-called
International Seabed Area, or be awarded to states claiming jurisdiction, had
the controversial new bill not been passed before the May deadline. However,
neither the CLCS nor the CLOS addressed the issue specifically over how to
adjudicate overlapping boundaries.
Philippine press secretary Cerge Remonde has said that China and other
claimants should not be worried as the new baseline law excludes the Kalayaan
islands and nearby Scarborough Shoal from its national territory, but rather
treats them as a "regime of islands". Technically this means that the
Philippines will continue to exercise sovereignty over the disputed territory
while also recognizing the existence of other countries' claims.
Despite China's strong reaction, some Filipino opposition lawmakers and legal
experts claimed that the baseline law represents a sell-out of national
sovereignty. Harry Roque, a lawyer at the Center of International Law, said
that the law surrendered what in reality was the Philippines' strongest claim
to the disputed islands, namely that the Spratlys form part of the "unity of
waters and islands" forming the Philippine archipelago.
"By using the [term] regime of islands, the new law has acknowledged that the
islands do not form part of our archipelago," Roque said.
The Spratlys around Palawan have rich fishing grounds and are home to various
endangered marine species, including leatherback turtles, which are protected
under Philippine law but are heavily prized and frequently poached by
less-regulated Chinese fishermen.
More strategically, the contested islands are believed to contain significant
oil and gas deposits, though estimates vary. The first major Philippine oil
discovery within the Spratly Islands occurred just off the coast of Palawan in
China's Geology and Mineral Resources Ministry has predicted that the Spratly
area holds oil and natural gas reserves of 17.7 billion tons, which if compared
to the 13 billion tons held by Kuwait, would make the islands the
fourth-largest reserve bed in the world.
The competing claimants to sovereignty have not awarded offshore production
concessions in the islands, for fear of provoking possible military clashes.
One former Philippine government official told Asia Times Online that the Galoc
gas field in Palawan, which was tentatively to be managed by a consortium of
British investors, was recently challenged by Beijing, which warned Manila
against granting any legally binding concessions or permits.
Tensions have waxed and waned over the Spratlys, but peaked in 1995, when the
Philippines discovered Chinese military structures at Mischief Reef, an island
claimed by Manila and located about 80 kilometers from Palawan. The Philippine
navy later that year arrested 62 Chinese fishermen at Half Moon Shoal, around
80 kilometers from Palawan, sparking a diplomatic incident.
Following that dispute, an Association of Southeast Asian Nations
(ASEAN)-brokered agreement was reached between China and the grouping's members
whereby one would inform the other of any military movement within the disputed
territory and that construction activities in the Spratlys would cease and
The agreement was promptly violated by both China and Malaysia. A Chinese naval
vessel entered the Panganiban Reef under the guise of repairing fishing
shelters and continued to annex islets in the Spratlys, while Malaysia erected
a structure on Investigator Shoal. By late 1998, Chinese bases had surrounded
the Philippines' outposts and at the height of concerns one British Royal navy
commander was quoted saying that China "appears to be preparing for war".
Those dire predictions never came to fruition, and tensions had greatly eased
as China opted to focus its diplomacy towards the region on soft-power
initiatives that promoted trade and investment. Beijing also agreed with ASEAN
members on a code of conduct for the disputed islands that guarded against the
use of force when problems emerged among competing claimants.
But the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea fell short
of the legally-binding code of conduct some ASEAN members were seeking. ASEAN
members recently adopted a blueprint for peace during the last day of this
month's summit meeting in Thailand. The blueprint called for an early warning
system "based on existing mechanisms to prevent occurrence/escalation of
conflicts", but failed to go into specific details.
Meanwhile, the United States continues to play a big role in maintaining the
region's strategic balance, including between the Philippines and China. That
was underscored just days after the ASEAN summit when a naval stand-off erupted
between China and the US over a vessel in the South China Sea. The Pentagon
said that five Chinese ships, including a naval vessel, harassed a US navy
mapping ship in international waters which China considers its own. The
Pentagon described the incident as the most aggressive of a series of incidents
with Chinese ships recently in the same area.
There have long been suggestions that China has annexed and occupied the
islands claimed by the Philippines, mainly for surveillance purposes. For
instance, analysts say that Mischief Reef would be an ideal site from which to
observe US naval vessels traveling through western Philippine waters. It might
also be aimed at opposing Taiwan, as the Spratlys lie across water essential to
what it sees as renegade province.
The Heritage Foundation, a conservative US policy think-tank, has said that the
US should unequivocally support the right of the Philippines to stake its
claims in the South China Sea and that Washington cannot remain neutral in this
territorial dispute as silence leaves neighboring countries with seemingly no
options but to acquiesce to Beijing.
At the same time, opposition lawmakers in Manila have warned the Arroyo
administration not to use its own diplomatic row with China to justify the
continuation of the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) with the US. The
10-year-old agreement, which allows US troops to maintain temporary camps in
the country to train Filipino soldiers, has come under fire from nationalistic
lawmakers and recently came to head over disagreement about the custody of an
American soldier accused of raping a Filipina. (See
A 'sacrificial lamb' for a military pact, Asia Times Online, Mar 19)
The alleged victim, who is now living in the US, recanted her story this month.
Soon thereafter, US President Barack Obama called Arroyo to thank her for her
cooperation on the VFA and the US's fight against global terrorism. That vote
of US confidence is expected to go some way towards emboldening Philippine
claims vis-a-vis China in the Spratly Islands.
Joel D Adriano is an independent consultant and award-winning freelance
journalist. He was a sub-editor for the business section of The Manila Times
and writes for ASEAN BizTimes, Safe Democracy and People's Tonight.