THE Philippines is now on a collision course with China over disputed territories that can be an international flashpoint.
A few days ago, a US spy plane making a “fly-by” over disputed territories in the Spratly’s] was challenged over radio by Chinese military on the ground and told to “go away.” Another commercial airplane flying overhead was similarly challenged. Earlier, Philippine vessels supplying provisions to Filipino soldiers stationed in the area were blockaded. Filipino fishermen were harassed, shooed away and fired upon with water cannons from Chinese vessels. Massive reclamation and building construction by the Chinese is on-going with China now telling the world that all territories in the South China Sea, irrespective of whether they are within the “exclusive eonomic zones” (EEZs) of diffirent countries, are considered Chinese territory.
In no time, China may enforce in the disputed area the so-called air defense identification zone (ADIZ) to tighten control and challenge anyone using the airspace without its permission. The risk is that the US and its allies consider these “international waters” and will continue to possibly ignore the Chinese. No doubt, we are now on a collision course with China.
Media study tour. A few days ago, I sat in a forum in Manila with fifteen foreign journalists who were Jefferson Fellows under the auspices of Honolulu-based East West Center. They were on a study tour principally to listen to briefings and get information on this issue with some assistance from the Philippine Press Institute.
The “claim” against giant China can be a flashpoint of a global crisis, given that other countries like our ally, the United States, can be drawn into this due to geopolitical implications.
Nine dash line. The conflicting claims of several neighboring countries over shoals, reefs or just rocks protruding from the sea during high tides had been in the backburners for some time now. It was there as a thorny issue but no one was really giving it special attention. Not until China unilaterally released recently a map with lines expanding its territorial borders. It is now what is famously known as “Nine dash line.” It draws an imaginary line with a bigger swathe, in effect proclaiming that China exercises sovereignty over a wider area in almost the whole of the South China (West Philippine) Sea by reason of history. It simply served notice to the whole world that territories found west of the Philippines, even though near the Philippines and other countries all belong to China. To counter this, we started calling this sea the “West Philippine Sea” instead and filed a case before the United Nations declaring that the new China map is not valid, also citing historical bases for our rights to this territory.
Two areas. University of the Philippines Professor Chito Sta. Romana, a Beijing-based Filipino journalist and an expert on the issue, summarized the two disputed areas: first, the “Scarborough or Panatag Shoals” in Zambales province up north in Luzon. Second, the area down south off Palawan called the “Spratlys or Kalayaan Island Group” where the claim involves other countries like Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunie and Taiwan.
Scarborough. Scarborough or Panatag Shoals in Zambales province is only a rock jutting out of the sea. During low tide, some seabed appear. This was a favorite fishing grounds of local fishermen. It is “Bajo de Masinloc,” being part of Masinloc municipality. The shoal also served as a place for refuge from giant waves for those caught during typhoons at sea. However, recently the local fisher folks were shooed away from the area by Chinese vessels using water cannons.
Zambales Governor Hermogenes “Jun” Ebdane, a former colleague of mine in the Arroyo cabinet, has recently installed a hi-tech surveillance system with the help of a Canadian company to monitor Chinese intrusions to protect the territory and his fisherfolks who had been deprived of livelihood.
Spratlys. Further down south in Palawan are located the Spratly’s group of islands scattered with around 50 islands or reefs or areas that appear above water only during low tide. Several Asian countries are claimants. It was said that in 1947, Filipino Thomas Cloma, an owner of a maritime academy in Manila (thus earning the monicker “Admiral”) “discovered” these uninhabited islands and named the island cluster Freedomland, which later became known as “Kalayaan Islands.” A cement bust or a monument on a pedestal of discoverer Cloma still stands in the area. He turned over his rights to the Philippine government in 1974, making them part of Palawan province, being only about 100 miles away from Palawan shores and well within the internationally recognized 200-mile Philippine exclusive economic zone (EEZ). About 20 years later or in 1995, China started constructing fisherman’s structures for Chinese fishermen there. Today, China is building what looks like a military installation.
Interlocking claims. The Philippines’ territorial claims include five islets, two cays ( small islands) and two reefs or a total of nine features or areas. There are interlocking claims. China is claiming seven areas while Vietnam claims twenty-two. Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunie and Taiwan also have their own claimed islets or areas near their own borders. The different countries’ basis for their respective claims is that although these areas are beyond their 12-mile territorial limits, these territories are within their 200 -mile exclusive economic zones (EEZ) from their respective continental shelf, as recognized by international protocols called the United Nations Convention of the Law of the Seas (UNCLOS). Obviously, mainland China is geographically far from these areas. But with China’s recent officially issued ‘nine dash line “ map, all these territories claimed by these countries were unilaterally declared as Chinese territory which the Philippines refuses to recognize.
Chinese mischiefs. In one of our nine claimed islets named “Mischief Reef” in the Kalayaan Islands, near Palawan, is where China started doing some “mischiefs” in 1983 when it called the place Chungian Islands. In 1995 Chinese “fishermen’s structures” were observed. To counter China’s intensions, , the AFP also in 1995 intentionally “beached” or “parked” our old junk-bound “Sierra Madre” naval ship in the waters nearby that became the permanent “floating” homebase of our few soldiers guarding the area. Mischief Reef, also known as “Panganiban” shoal, where China is doing massive work is now about 32,000 square meters or 3.2 hectares, growing in size from its original land area of only 1,900 square meters –and still growing due to Chinese reclamation work. It is becoming a military installation. Today, Chinese massive dredging, reclamation and construction are on going in the different disputed shoals or reefs.
In “Fiery Cross” reef, massive reclamation is underway with an airstrip being built which will be functional soon. In our so-called “Johnson” or Mabini Reef, multi-story structures are being constructed. It is near the Recto or “Reed Bank” area where oil deposits were reportedly found, reputedly bigger than our Malampaya reserves, making the whole area tempting to covet. “Pag-asa Island,” also called Thitu Island, is the second biggest island where there are Pinoy inhabitants and a team of Filipino soldiers on land. Another island is called the Second Thomas Shoal.
Recourse. Feeling aggrieved, helpless and unable to stop these Chinese mischiefs and hoping to seek legal redress, the Philippines filed in January 2013 a statement of claim before a United Nations agency but China rejected the claim and refused to participate in the proceedings. According to Associate Professor Jay Batungbacal of the UP Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea, the Philippine case is still pending before an “ad hoc tribunal” based in the Hague with five member-nations sitting as a tribunal. With China’s refusal to participate in the case, it was posited that even a favorable decision in the future in favor of the Philippines cannot be enforced. Reports had been circulating that China was really furious when the Philippines filed for arbitration with the UN. Like saying: “How dare you!!” From all indications, China will not agree to a legal settlement and may prefer bilateral negotiations between the Philippines and China alone, one on one. For the moment, the Philippines is pursuing a multilateral approach by seeking arbitration from the UN but there are strong calls for our government to open a new track: talking directly to China — the Asian way, as some our our Asian neighbors are now quietly doing.
History. According to experts, the Philippine position has strong historical basis. Scarborough, since early 1700s, was a part of the area under the Spanish colonial government. It was passed on to the US under the Treaty of Paris. In fact, a Swedish vessel was said to have been marooned in the area in 1913 and the Philippine colonial government came to the rescue. It was only in 1983 that China first stirred and gave it the name Chungian Islands. In the 1990s during the operations of RP-US Philippine bases agreement, the area was even used as the aerial target practice site of drilling US soldiers. It was only in 2012 that China literally planted its flag to claim.
In the case of the Spratly’s, the Philippines occupied the uninhabited islands in 1947 effectively and continuously.
Implications. Aside from being a Philippine-China territorial dispute, the whole world will have to sit up and take action because this is now also developing into an international maritime issue where China, with its constructions and planned dominance, may claim control over the world’s global sealanes where about a third of the whole world’s economic logistic system passes. Getting some help from Asean of which the Philippines is a founder-member is “not a good forum” considering that its positions require consensus or agreement of all the 10 member-states, given that some of the member countries are doing quiet and separate “bilateral” talks with China like Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei.
It is only the Philippines that sought multilateral help by going to the United Nations. It is opined that the Philippine move is being quietly watched by other claimant-nations as it can be a test-bed of how big allies like the US, Japan, Australia, etc. will react and help. Or rather, will the Philippines be left out “in the cold” by its friends, given China’s economic and military might?
Philippine position. Former Cabinet Secretary Rafael Alunan of the Cory Aquino and Ramos administrations recalled that it was in 1995 when he woke up one morning to realize for the first time that the country “lost” Mischief Reef. Today it is becoming a Chinese military installation. Now as president of the West Philippine Sea Coalition, Sec. Alunan stressed that the Philippine position must be a combination of prudence, self-reliance but it must be forthright and the Philippines should remain a strong, not weak, link in the chain of nation claimants against China.
USA as ally. The United States’ so-called military forces deployment strategy called “Pivot of Asia” that will result in its more active presence in Asia may bring it also into a collision course with China for the US has declared that its main interest in the South China Sea is “ensuring freedom of navigation.” So far, China ‘s body language negates freedom of navigation in the area and the US will not take this sitting down.
However, there are those who say (like party-list Akbayan leader Walden Bello) that the US will not risk going to war with China just to uphold and protect the Philippine position.
The situation can be volatile. The latest report of a US spy plane being challenged by the Chinese military during a “fly-by” over the Spratly’s a few days ago and the US declaration that it considers the area “ international waters” is an indication of the US concern and direction it may take. The latest events show that the US will not stand idly by and will challenge China when its intrusions are now clearly becoming an international maritime matter.
Too early yet to tell what will actually happen next but the recent incidents are instructive and worth monitoring. They can be veritable flashpoints. So, let’s all watch closely.