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Wednesday, December 6, 2023

Our misunderstood position in the South China Sea

There are factors affecting our understanding of our claim in the South China Sea. This has deeply divided us such that the US has been using this to create a wedge between this country and China. This stems from our lack of understanding of our own history and of the subsequent conventions redefining international law. Unfortunately, the Liberal Party and the opposition have been exploiting this to ingratiate themselves with the US and instigate an anti-Chinese sentiment.

The first factor is on our understanding of the historical document known to us as the Treaty of Paris signed on Dec. 10, 1898. The Philippine archipelago was sold by Spain to the US for $20 million. Maybe Spain purposely did not include the Paracel and Spratly islands because they do not form part of the Philippine archipelago or that those islets have yet to be effectively occupied to assert sovereignty over the area.

This misunderstanding was reinforced when our historians purposely ignored the degrees indicating the latitude and longitude that form the Philippine archipelago which would later constitute the formal boundaries of the first republic in Asia. The grant of Philippine independence by the US on July 4, 1946 constitutes the same boundaries demarcated by Spain that was handed to us when the US finally granted us our “independence.” It is worth noting that the US did not alter the boundaries by adding, say, new islands or territories, subsequent to its US occupation of the Philippines.

Although not directly connected to our definition of national boundary, conflict among states somehow altered boundaries of which the defeated states were ordered to return by the Allied powers the territories they occupied and annexed during the war. The Treaty of San Francisco signed on September 8, 1951 mandated Japan to renounce all rights and claims to the Spratley and Paracel islands. Even if the San Francisco Treaty has no reference to our claim in the South China Sea, the treaty nonetheless acknowledged China as having the sovereign right over those islands. The only thing that is unclear is whether the Treaty has reference to the People’s Republic of China or to Taiwan which today, both remain politically at odds.

The second factor is our misunderstanding of the role of the US. Most Filipinos do not understand whether the presence of the US military bases here is purely pursuant to its hegemonistic interest as a world power or pursuant to our existing alliance with that country. Even on that issue, there are questions whether their involvement is not due to our claim in the South China Sea, or that the Philippines is a victim of aggression to which US Congress would still have to approve the US involvement considering that our alliance is merely based on an executive agreement and not a treaty similar to Nato, where an attack would mean an automatic retaliation from other member-states.

Even if the US has manifested several times that its naval presence in the South China Sea is to assure compliance to the freedom of navigation, which is of general application for free passage. However, that gives no assurance that the US would come to our assistance in the event of conflict with China over those disputed islands. There is much skepticism whether the US would assist the Philippines if the latter is attacked or invaded by other countries. What is disheartening is the earlier pronouncement made by Hilary Clinton when she was the US Secretary of State, that the US would not take sides over our claim in the South China Sea.

Interpreted otherwise, the presence of US forces in our territory and its routine naval patrol in the South China Sea has nothing to do with the military agreements we entered into with that country but is solely intended to secure their own interest veiled in keeping open the freedom of navigation. Maybe US naval presence is intended to pre-empt possible attack by China because of the heightening tension which the US itself created by the sale of weapons, aircrafts, lately a submarine, and by President Trump’s signing of the Taiwan Travel Act on top of the looming trade war with China. China strongly protested to the signing of the Taiwan Travel Act as a violation of the One-China principle signed during Nixon’s visit to China in 1972.

Looking back, it appears that the Philippines is the one facilitating to heighten the tension to validate and justify US sale of its costly weapons to substitute to its increasing trade deficit. China’s reclamation of about 290,000 square kilometers in seven of those islands and the building of facilities, installation of radar and communication facilities, construction of a deep port for the berthing of ships, runways, installation of defensive missiles and anti-aircraft batteries and ultra-sensitive jamming device for intruding aircrafts and vessels are rights that can be carried out by sovereign states over its own territory. They can never be interpreted as a threat or much more, would constitute an act of aggression

The third factor is the provision of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea with regard to our claim to the Scarborough Shoal or locally known as Bajo de Masinloc, Panatag Shoal or Huangyan Dao to the Chinese. The basis of our claim is the result of a new demarcation made by Unclos called “exclusive economic zone.” This boundary stretches up to 200 kilometers from the coastal baseline of the adjacent state, and the Panatag Shoal is located 124 miles off Zambales province. Nonetheless, the Panatag Shoal is located outside the boundary demarcated in the Treaty of Paris.

The problem began when China ratified the UNCLOS, and the Philippines now interpreted Panatag Shoal as belonging to the Philippines. We hold no historical record except to assert that our fishermen have traditionally been fishing in the area because the shoal is the spawning ground for variety of fish due to its rich corrals and marine nutrients found in the area. The Aquino government avoided accepting the truth that the ECC merely bestows upon the state the right to fish or explore and to exploit some minerals but does not vest upon that state sovereign ownership over the area. China’s accession to the Unclos cannot be interpreted as a waiver of its sovereign right nor can it be prevented by adjoining states to fish or explore and exploit mineral resources found in the area. This explains why China has relaxed its stranglehold of the shoal after President Duterte sought to peacefully resolve the naval standoff created by the Aquino administration for which the US Navy merely looked at the tense situation like a bystander.

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