Is it right?

"Perhaps America can share its satellite photos of how the incident of June 9 actually happened."


In Tokyo, last May 31, 2019, addressing the 25th Nikkei Conference on “The Future of Asia,” President Rodrigo Duterte asked the existential question: “Is it right for a country to claim the whole ocean?”

He was referring to the vigorous, if violent, attempts by China to claim as a sphere of influence, if not outright sovereignty, over the vast entirety of the South China Sea. In part of that sea, the Philippines has a globally recognized 200-mile exclusive economic zone. Manila refers to its EEZ as the West Philippine Sea.

In his Nikkei speech, Duterte declared:

“We are friends with China. I am the moderator country for China and the ASEAN. And the last thing I heard was that the [code on the] conduct of the sea is just about two years away.”

“I would not want to impose my own—it would be my last word—but if I get to get a chance to visit Beijing again, I’ll try to talk to President Xi Jinping.”

“And the longer it takes for the issue to be there it is always a flashpoint for trouble. And not only that because of the absence of the conduct of the sea, France, Britain, America are testing the waters.”

“This is not a testing of waters of temperature, my God. It is really testing who can fire the first shot. And I am sad and bewildered, not angry because I cannot do anything.”

“I just hope that China would come up with (the code of) conduct of the sea soon and somebody should reach out to the United States. Because if you leave it to them to talk, nothing will happen. There is so much animosity covered by sweet-talking about how they desire to have an agreement. But nobody is pushing and the intrusions as far as China is concerned it’s in their waters.”

“I love China.  It has helped us a bit. But it behooves upon us to ask: Is it right for a country to claim the whole ocean?” 

As you probably know, the South China Sea sprawls over 3.5 million square kilometers. Using its so-called nine-dash line map, Beijing claims up to 90 percent of the South China Sea, a claim debunked by the Philippines winning in 2016 an Arbitral Tribunal ruling which said China has no historical rights based on the nine-dash line. The tribunal, however, refused to rule on the issue of sovereignty, and accordingly, did not delineate boundaries covering contested islands in the South China Sea.

History, however, is written by the victors. Might is right. So per its version of history, China owns most, if not all, of the South China Sea. Hence, the Duterte question: “Is it right for China to own the whole ocean?”

According to International Hydrographic Organization Limits of Oceans and Seas, 3rd edition (1953), the South China Sea is south of China, west of the Philippines, east of Vietnam, and east of the Malay Peninsula and Sumatra, up to the strait of Singapore.

The Philippines exercises EEZ, not sovereignty, up to 2.0 million square kms. EEZ means the Philippines owns the resources (fishery, marine life, minerals, etc) under the sea and above the sea, but does not own the area as a sovereign territory, meaning other countries can fish in its waters,—but not to reclaim islands (as China has done) or attack fishing vessels of other countries in the area (as China has done).

An estimated US$3.37 trillion worth of global trade passes through the South China Sea annually, for a third of the global maritime trade; 80 percent of China´s energy imports and 39.5 percent of China´s total trade passes through the South China Sea, according to Wikipedia.

On near midnight of June 9, Beijing probably gave the answer to Duterte’s question: At the Reed Bank or Recto Bank, a heavily reinforced Chinese vessel suddenly appeared in the dark horizon and rammed the hapless wooden boat of 22 Filipino fishermen, all but one of whom were asleep at the time of the incident.

Adding insult to injury, and against the law on conduct of vessels in open sea, the Chinese ship Yuemaobinyu, after making sure it had sunk the Philippine boat, Gem Ver, left in a huff, in classic hit-and-run fashion. The 22 Filipino fishermen waded and gasped for dear life in the middle of the ocean in total darkness and biting cold for about six hours before they were fished out of the water by a Vietnamese fishing boat. The Filipinos were fed rice and noodles, given dry clothes, and made to rest until another Filipino boat came to retrieve them.

Now, Duterte may ask: Is it right for an industrial-grade Chinese boat to ram a smaller wooden boat with 22 sleepy fishermen in the middle of the night, and abandon them? In a place that is claimed by the Philippines as its property?

Only the conscience of Beijing and the patience of Duterte can answer that. In the meantime, maybe, America can share its satellite photos of how the incident of June 9 actually happened.

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Topics: 25th Nikkei Conference , Rodrigo Duterte , South China Sea , ASEAN

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