The whole world knows by now our fecklessness when dealing with territorial issues.
Exhibit A is Sabah.
Sabah remains a legitimate part of the Philippine territory. It is owned by the Sultanate of Sulu, which made the bone-headed decision to lease it to the British North Borneo Company in 1878. Malaysia’s claim rests not on actual ownership but on the false interpretation that the 1878 lease was a “cession.” Or the Sultanate’s supposed forfeiture of the ownership after being paid a token lease. Lease is neither a sale nor the abandonment of property.
The 1963 formation of the Malaysian Federation was attended by the holding of a referendum that sought the votes of the Sabahans on which mother country did they prefer. Naturally, the voters preferred Malaysia that had acted as their de facto mother country since the 1878 lease. To serious scholars of territorial jurisdictions, a referendum cannot prop up the ownership claim of an interloper, which in Sabah’s case has been Malaysia.
We are supposed to have a “dormant” claim over Sabah. But then again, what is the value and worth of that? My favorite answer comes from John Nance Garner, former vice president of the US, who was asked how important his VP post was. His answer: not worth a pitcher of warm spit. That is the current value of the PH’s “dormant” claim on Sabah – not worth a pitcher of warm spit.
Exhibit B are the areas covered by the West Philippine Sea.
All the old maps of the world have another name for the Scarborough Shoal, a collection of reefs, sandbanks, atolls and rocky outcrops that fall within the UNCLOS rule on territorial rule of 200 miles off the nearest coast. That name is Bajo de Masinloc, which is a town in Zambales province. From time immemorial, our fishermen have been fishing off the atolls and rocks in relative peace. The Shoal’s other names are Panatag, which means peace or serene, and Karburo, the smelly powder being used to ripen mature Zambales mangoes.
The cartographers of the old times have not heard of its Chinese name – Huangyan Island – because they did not recognize China’s claim over the Shoal. Even Charles Darwin, in a monograph, placed the Shoal under Philippine territory.
China, using an UNCLOS-defiant 9-dash line, has claimed the shoal and pretty much all of Philippine territorial waters there.
China has not only encouraged its fishermen to equip their fishing vessels with modern equipment so that they can venture out with regularity and impunity in these territories. It has been on a construction binge, from military facilities to putting in place navigational aids. Its military might – it is estimated that it can be at parity with the US military might in a few decades – allows it to build and annex the WPS without any sanction.
China does not want any form of international mediation to settle the WPS territorial issues. It stands by its erroneous 9-dash line. The territorial annexations, like the ones being done by Russia, have massive support from China’s over a billion population.
Now, we have reports that a Chinese group using a survey ship made a recent visit to Benham Rise. China’s foreign ministry said it was an innocent incursion and invoked the usual “freedom of navigation“ right. But with China, any incursion is suspect, given its wont to annex territory that does not clearly belong to it.
The other disturbing development was a statement from China’s foreign ministry that said the Philippines can’t claim Benham Rise, ignoring a UN decision in April of 2012 that approved the Philippine claim over Benham. The Philippines filed it with the UNCLOS in 2008.
More than the UN decision, the Benham has seismic, magnetic and geological features that are very similar to the Philippines. It is actually an extension of the Philippine territory. Since the ancient days, Filipino fishermen have ventured into the area to fish.
This is the Eastern Seaboard remember. China can invoke all sorts of magical and baseless reasons to doubt the Philippine ownership of Benham. But China’s distance from Benham automatically rules any and all ownership claim over the underground formation that is larger than the entire Luzon region.
So what have been the official steps taken by the PH government to force our ownership issue? Not much. Except for a lame statement from the Palace that Benham is our territory, nothing much has been done to physically annex it.
A proposal to create a Benham Rise Development Authority, which should be a priority given the Chinese suspicious moves on Benham, has not been certified as a priority measure.
The Benham Rise is said to contain an awesome natural gas deposit that would make the country a natural gas exporter.
Any other country that lays claim on Benham should be given a forceful warning. It is ours, don’t intrude. We are willing to go to war over it. As Archbishop Villegas said, there is no peace for cowards. More so, when the territorial integrity of the country is mocked.