Third of a series on the Spratly crisis
I’m starting to think that the Chinese Communist Party has a secret agent at the highest levels of our government, the very highest in fact: President Benigno Cojuangco Aquino 3rd.
The only other explanation is that we have a President so dim-witted that he has cost not only us and future generations of Filipinos dearly, but has also changed the balance of power in Asia by unwittingly helping Chinese expansion into the disputed areas of the South China Sea.
He lost Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal to the Chinese in 2012, when he ordered our ships to leave it after a week-long standoff, believing the claims by his Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario and his secret envoy, Senator Antonio Trillanes 4th, that the Chinese had agreed to a simultaneous withdrawal. They didn’t, of course.
That’s the second island we’ve lost after the Vietnamese grabbed Pugad Island in the Spratlys in 1975, when our forces left it to attend their commander’s birthday party on a nearby island. They returned the next day to find a Vietnamese garrison on it, telling them to go away.*
Aquino’s most recent strategic blunder, and bad not only us, but probably for the world, is his order for the government in January 2013 to file a case at the United Nations Permanent Arbitration Court asking it to rule that China is violating the provisions of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and that the seven reefs it is occupying belong to the Philippines.
It is this case that has given the Chinese both the justification and the urgency to convert their seven reefs in the Spratlys, which they seized in 1988 and 1995, into islands through massive reclamation work that started right after the suit was filed. (These are Fiery Cross, Cuarteron, Subi Reef, Gaven, Hughes, Johnson South, and Mischief reefs, all of which are between the islands we occupy and Palawan.)
It’s a misconception – probably deliberately disseminated – that our suit is asking for the court to rule as illegal China’s so-called “nine-dash line,” a vague tongue-shaped dashed line on its maps, which declares practically the entire South China Sea as theirs, including our Kalayaan Island Group.
While it did mention that such nine-dash line is “invalid,” the Philippine case involves the argument that the Chinese can’t occupy what are merely “rocks,” which the suit, invoking UNCLOS provisions, called “submerged reefs with no more than a few rocks protruding above sea level at high tide.”
Paragraph 24 of our “Statement of Claim” submitted to the Court says: Even as these Chinese-held “features are ‘rocks’ under Article 121(3) of UNCLOS, China unlawfully claims entitlements to maritime zones greater than 12 nautical miles in the waters and seabed surrounding them, and wrongfully excludes the Philippines and other States from these areas.”
“Rocks” are in contrast to islands, like our Pag-asa Island, which UNCLOS gives a 12-mile territorial zone and another 12-mile contiguous zone. Besides, Aquino’s government argued, the entire Spratly island also falls within our mainland’s 200-mile exclusive economic zone around it, in which the Chinese-controlled reefs are located.
China didn’t agree to be “arbitrated,” which makes one wonder how the case should be called, as an arbitration is defined as two parties’ agreement to let a third party settle their dispute.
The Chinese, however, exploited the issue raised by the Philippines, and in effect replied to our claim that they’re just sitting on rocks, and therefore should leave:
“So they’re just rocks, huh? Wait and we will make them into islands.”
A few months after we filed the case in early 2013, the Chinese went on a reclamation frenzy on the seven reefs, which previously only had bunkers on stilts planted on the reefs.
Above Gaven Reef, below Johnson.
An analogy – a very rough one, though – would be if in a land placed under a homestead law, you had a concrete fence built around your property. You then file a case in court asking it to declare that only lands surrounded by a fence can be titled for private ownership. What do you think would other settlers rush to do?
US got scared
The US a few months ago got scared that the reclaimed area could accommodate military installations, including airstrips for military aircraft. It made public its high-definition spy-satellite photos – cleverly through a private news website (diplomat.com) – on the Chinese reclamation work.
The world woke up to find that the seven reefs on which the Chinese previously had bunkhouses on stilts, had become islands with ports, buildings, and even airstrips.
Of course, we could argue that the UNCLOS provision had that descriptive phrase “naturally occurring” islands. Still though, our case now risks being thrown out entirely on factual grounds.
Our suit repeats again and again that the Chinese are merely occupying “rocks” below the sea, so they are within our exclusive economic zone. But China has changed the very geographic features of the seven areas they had occupied, turning them into islands.
Now the Court, and even the UN itself, may have to ask its signatories to define if an island is an island if it was created out of reclamation work. It would certainly seem awkward to classify that such lands as Kansai International Airport, Hong Kong International Airport, the Palm Islands of Dubai or even our Mall of Asia – all artificial islands – are just “rocks.”
Before our suit was filed in 2013, China occupied only seven reefs, with a land area of zero.
In contrast, we have occupied seven islands with a total area of 84 hectares, less Pugad Island, which we lost in 1975. Our “flagship’ Pag-asa Island of 37 hectares, is the second biggest in the neighborhood, next to Taiwan’s Taiping island of 46 hectares. Our Likas Island is the third largest, with 19 hectares.
The islands with the Philippine flags were those that Marcos asked marines to occupy in the 1970s. We officially declared our sovereignty over those islands, as well as everything in those areas, when Marcos issued Presidential Decree No. 1596 of 1978, which drew a hexagon covering 29,000 hectares over what was internationally called the Spratly islands. The decree called it the Kalayaan Island Group, and declared it a municipality of Palawan province.
(The decree justified our claim to it: “WHEREAS, these areas do not legally belong to any state or nation but, by reason of history, indispensable need, and effective occupation and control established in accordance with international law, such areas must now be deemed to belong and subject to the sovereignty of the Philippines; WHEREAS, while other states have laid claims to some of these areas, their claims have lapsed by abandonment and can not prevail over that of the Philippines on legal, historical, and equitable grounds.)
Biggest landowner before
The biggest landowner as late as 2013 had been Vietnam, which has six islands with a total area of 47 hectares. Our loss to Vietnam of our Pugad Island in 1975 was such a colossal blunder, as it was the sixth largest island in the group.
After we taunted them that what they occupied were just “rocks,” the Chinese, through their unprecedented reclamation work, created islands out of the reefs, with an estimated total area of 598 hectares at present. Now they’re the biggest landowners in the neighborhood, thanks to Aquino.
Of course, one could argue that with or without our suit, China would have undertaken the massive reclamation work that created islands out of those reefs, that it was their ultimate goal right after they built bunkers on stilts on the reefs in the 1990s.
Yet, it is just too coincidental that right after our suit was filed, the reclamation blitz started. At the very least, Aquino gave them the justification, and the urgency to build the artificial islands.
No matter how much I try, I can’t remove that image in my mind of leaders in Southeast Asia pulling their hair in exasperation: “Why do the Filipinos have such a stupid President?”
While the Scarborough “standoff” lasted nearly two weeks in 2012 and the filing of the UNCLOS case came two years later, Aquino did not even convene the National Security Council for their inputs on these matters of such grave importance to the Republic.
In fact, nobody knows if Aquino consulted anyone on these matters, and if he did, who was it? Senator Trillanes 4th, who had bragged to me that he had contacts that go as high as the Politburo?
I never imagined a President could do so much harm not only on a country but on the region.
*(To help confused readers, the disputed areas in the South China sea consist of three places: the Paracel Islands northwest of Vietnam, over which we do not have any claim; the Scarborough Shoal area southeast off Zambales province; and the Spratly islands, officially the Kalayaan Island Group to us, which lies off Palawan.).
Next in these series: A plan of action so we don’t lose our Kalayaan territory.
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