The South China Sea dispute


Third of three parts

Until my recent journey to China whipped up my interest in relations between our two countries, I was not particularly interested in the facts and issues of our government’s highly-publicized dispute over islands, islets, atolls and reefs in the South China Sea with the People’s Republic of China.

I was more interested as a journalist in how President Xi Jinping’s “Chinese dream” or “rejuvenation” would match up against President Obama’s “pivot” or “rebalance” to Asia. Why do they need two terms each for what they are trying to do? Is this the new normal in big-power politics?

Even so, I journeyed to China with the intent to raise a question or two about our bilateral relations, and the sea dispute – given the heavy emphasis that President Benigno Aquino 3rd has placed on it.

Background of the sea dispute
In researching and writing on the subject, I have found it helpful to telescope developments in the dispute with this calendar:

1. January 2013, the Philippines brought a case against China to the Arbitral Tribunal under the United Nations Convention on the law of the Sea.

2. On March 30, 2014, our Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) announced that it submitted its Memorial to the Arbitral Tribunal that is hearing the case.

3. On April 3, 20 14, the Chinese Embassy in Manila, through its spokesperson Mr. Zhang Hua, released a position paper that spells out clearly China’s position on its South China Sea dispute with the Philippines. (for readers who want to delve deeper into the issue, here’s a link to the position paper — —

which was posted by the Philippine Star on its website back in April this year.)

I’ve been seeking a comparable statement on the Philippine position on the South China Sea dispute, but so far, my research has yielded no results. We have only press releases about the filing of the case and the submission of the memorial.

The Chinese embassy position paper is important and significant, because it summarizes the broad background of the dispute, its history, the legal issues involved, and the commitments of both sides to peaceably settle the dispute.

China’s position paper
Because of the light it sheds on China’s thinking on the sea dispute, I summarize below in abbreviated form the key points discussed by Mr. Zhang in the position paper:

1. The Philippines’ initiation of and push for international arbitration has undermined China-Philippines relations.

Under normal circumstances, submission of a dispute to international arbitration requires an agreement reached between the two parties concerned. Yet, the Philippine side failed to notify the Chinese side, not to mention seeking China’s consent, before it actually initiated the arbitration.

2. Why does China not accept the arbitration?

First, China is committed to resolving its disputes with the Philippines through bilateral negotiations.

Second, China’s refusal to accept the arbitration is an exercise of its right under international law. According to international law, China has every right not to accept the arbitration initiated by the Philippines.

The Philippines’ initiation of arbitration is based on the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. However, the framework of the Convention is not applicable to all maritime issues. First, the disputes between China and the Philippines are principally territorial disputes over islands, which are not covered by the Convention.

Third, a resort to arbitration does not meet people’s expectations for friendship in both China and the Philippines. Territorial and maritime disputes are not the entirety of the China-Philippines relationship.

3. It is China’s sincere wish that the disputes between China and the Philippines will be settled through bilateral negotiations.

China has long exercised sovereignty over the Nansha Islands. After the Second World War, China recovered the Nansha Islands occupied by Japanese aggressors in 1946 and took a series of steps to confirm and reaffirm its sovereignty over the Nansha Islands. At that time, the Philippines, an independent country already, made no objection to China’s moves.

4. China’s Basic Position on the Issue of the South China Sea

The core of the South China Sea issue rests with the territorial disputes on islands and reefs, and overlapping claims on maritime rights and interests in waters of the South China Sea, which are caused by the illegal occupation of some islands and reefs of China’s Nansha Islands by some coastal countries. Formed in the long historic course, China’s sovereignty and relevant rights in the South China Sea have solid historic and legal basis, and have been upheld by successive Chinese governments.

China has always adhered to resolving relevant disputes with sovereign states directly concerned, including the Philippines, through consultations and negotiations. This has been the consistent position of the Chinese side, and conforms to the consensus that China and ASEAN countries reached in the Declaration of Conduct of Parties (DOC).

5. The Nature of China-Philippines Disputes in the South China Sea

As for what has happened in the South China Sea in recent years, all were provoked by the Philippines. Take the 2012 incident at Huangyan Island as an example, the Philippines harassed unarmed Chinese fishermen with a Navy ship around China’s Huangyan Island, and forced them to take off clothes and stand exposed under the scorching sun. Do you think it is China that bullies the Philippines? Another example is the Ren’ai Reef. A Philippine navy ship was “grounded” off the reef in 1999, over which the Chinese side has never stopped making representations.

6. The Consensus between China and the Philippines on the South China Sea Issue

In 2002, China and the ASEAN countries including the Philippines signed the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC), and the Section 4 stipulates that the parties concerned should undertake to resolve their territorial and jurisdictional disputes by peaceful means, without resorting to the threat or use of force, through friendly consultations and negotiations by sovereign states directly concerned, in accordance with universally recognized principles of international law, including the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

7. Freedom and Safety of Navigation

For a long time, there has been no problem of freedom and safety of navigation in the South China Sea. Freedom and safety of navigation in the South China Sea has not been affected by disputes of Nansha Islands, nor will there be any problem in the future.

8. China is Committed to a South China Sea of Peace, Friendship and Cooperation

For a long time, the Chinese side has stayed committed to implementing the DOC together with parties concerned to safeguard peace and stability of the South China Sea.”

Consistent policy from party to government to academe
At the luncheon tendered our group by Mr Zhang Xuyi, deputy director-general of the International Department of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China, we heard for ourselves how consistently the government’s official position on issues is maintained in china.

The international department of the party, we learned, is a kind of foreign ministry in its own right. Its view and presentation of policy is consistent with that of the foreign policy bureaucracy. There is consistency in language and tone.

The deputy director-general was gracious in hearing us all out, and in patiently answering our questions on various matters of policy, and on the sea dispute.

In his remarks, he provided us with a broad perspective on China’s foreign policy and on the importance it attaches to Philipine-China relations.

He summarized China’s policy towards its ASEAN neighbors as “friendship, friendship and friendship.”

To my question on China’s view of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), to which both China and the Philippines are signatory, he emphasized that UNCLOS came into being only in 1984, whereas our relationship and china’s sovereignty over the islands began way, way back in history.

He also addressed a question raised by one group member whether China’s commitment today to the rule of law, includes also international law. He replied that China attaches much importance to its international obligations.

All in all, Mr Zhang stressed remarkably similar points covered by the Chinese embassy paper released in April this year. Interestingly, both the deputy director-general and the embassy spokesman are surnamed Zhang.

We discovered that the official policy line is faithfully adhered to from one government bureau to another, from President Xi to lower civil servants, from the party to the bureaucracy, from government to academe.


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  1. Fergus Ducharme on

    Sir, you appear to be parroting exactly what the ‘spokespersons’ for the Chinese “Side” repeat ad naseum. Do you intend to present a version of the Philippine’s “Side” of the matter? Or does your agreement with the Chinese “Side” preclude that? This so-called article is simply a rehash of the Chinese “Side’s” piffle and should be treated as such. I was hoping for some sort of ‘scholarly comment’ on the situation – how gravely disappointed I was as surely most other readers were!

  2. Dragon's Nightmare on

    No doubts you are totally being used as an instrument by those Short Sighted Communists in Beijing to disseminate these Baseless Irrational Distorted ALLEGATIONS against your own Country and against the Filipino People.


    Tell you masters in Beijing about that.

    • Silverio G. Nome on

      Tama ka dyan Dragon’s Nightmare.Ginamit din ng mga intsik si FVR a few weeks back.Mr. Yen, I follow all your columns and I believed I have found a nationalistic pinoy in your person. I am deeply mistaken. How could you do this to us?

  3. No love for his country,while you are out there Macabenta why dont you apply to become Chinese citizen and dont come back.

  4. Mr, Makabenta, I follow almost all your columns, but this one is I think is BS simply because China doesn’t respect sovereign rights or territory. All country has 200 nautical miles EEZ as simple as that. It is only now that China is looking for alternative source of energy and Ph has all the potential like the Malampaya near Palawan. Take the case of Vietnam recently, China tried to put oil rigs in Vietnam’s soveign territory. You say China want’s to settle the dispute peacefully with only the party involved because China thinks that Ph official can easily be bought which to me I think is true. How can China bribe Ph official if there is UN in the middle. China has all the right not to attend the UN arbitration because they knew they will loose and all their maps showing that they own the entire South China sea including the west Philippine sea are all fake which everyone knows they are famous in copying almost everything. Look everywhere, everything you see are almost made in China. China became rich and powerful because of Ph like it or not.
    What happen in 2012 you were saying that Ph coastguard bully the chinese poachers? Are you saying Mr. Yen, that it is PCG fault? Chinese fisherman where caught fishing in Ph territorry, harvesting everything including endangered species. They are illegal chinese poachers and should be punish according to Ph laws. Chinese fishermen where caught within the 200 nautical miles EEZ of Ph territory. Chinese coast guard are the bullies because they threatened our PCG to surrender the poachers or the PCG will be harmed and aim their guns and canons at the PCG. It so happen that PCG are a bunch of cowards because they give in to Chinese coast guard w/out a fight. PCG should stand their ground and not surrender the poachers. Phil. anthem last stanza “Ang mamatay ng dahil sa iyo” we should fight for our rights.

  5. Nolito Binahon on

    You haven’t presented Philippines Position Paper only China. And only a limited background of the SCS issues.

  6. Dominador D. Canastra on

    Mr. Makabenta, I always read your columns and like them except parts of this series on your trip to China sponsored bv Communist Party. You seem to have been totally brainbwashed and turned into an anti-Philippine sovereignty writer. You don’t even call the West Philippine Sea by that name and wish to bolstrer China’s claim to what they call the South China Sea, which has been the “maritime homeland” of the people who later became known to worldmap makers as the Filipinos, the Malays, Indonesians, etc. Please be less proChina, whose seafarers only in their annals began to come to our seas later even than the Westerners because the Sons’ of Heaven’s imperial policy was to restrict contact with and knowledge of the Barbarians world outside the Celestial Kingdom.
    Joma’s Communist Party of the Philippines has no more formal ties with the Communist Party of China (but it has informal ties). Are you working to be the restorer of Chinese Communist Party ties with a new above-ground Philippine Communist Party?

    • It seems to me Mr Makabenta is a member of Chinese Fifth Column in the PH. Bilateral negotiations with China will not be favorable to the Philippines. Look at Vietnam Bilateral Negotiations with China in the end China stabbed Vietnam in the back when China moved their $B-oil rigs in the Vietnamese Economic Zone. With large Chinese Coast Guard ships ramming smaller Vietanamese Ships enraging Vietnamese people. Bilateral negotiations with China means selling our interest in the West Philippine Seas.

  7. P. on

    I am a perennial student of politics and government. Your discussions on the China-Philippine dispute give a more balance perception of the issues. It would seem to me that someone “rocked the boat” and, that mutual and peaceful agreements, not legalistic considerations are primordial for co-existence. Someone’s government missed or is missing the point!