The Philippines as an archipelagic state: advantages and challenges

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AMONG the great triumphs of Philippine diplomacy has been the recognition of  the archipelagic  doctrine by the  United Nations Convention on the Law of the Seas (UNCLOS). Obtained not without strong opposition from major maritime countries, its recognition is of the most vital interest to the Filipino nation, its signal importance obvious from the explanation of the archipelagic doctrine in the simple, resounding words of the leader of the Philippine delegation to the International Convention on the Law of the Sea of 1958, former Sen. Arturo Tolentino:

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“To apply the 3-mile rule to the Philippines, with every island having its own territorial sea, would have a fatal effect upon the territorial integrity of the Philippines. It would mean the dismemberment of the Philippine archipelago with the Sibuyan sea separating the Visayas and the Mindanao Strait and the Sulu Sea isolating Palawan from the rest of the archipelago. These and other areas of waters would cease to be Philippine waters; they would become international waters or high seas…”

Given the recognition by international law of the Philippine archipelago as a unity of people, land, and sea, Filipinos have yet to use and benefit fully from the advantages that Nature has bestowed on them by their inhabiting an archipelago. To begin with, there is a need for a greater consciousness of the Philippines as an archipelagic state among policy makers and the public. Why, some Filipinos think like they’re living in a vast continental mass!

There are many reasons for Filipinos to be glad and proud of belonging to the Philippine archipelago. Besides a strategic location, Nature has gifted the Philippines’ geological configurations a sense of oneness. The Philippines is unique among archipelagos for the closeness and compactness with which its islands, islets, and other marine features are grouped together. Apart from the wealth of natural resources on and under its land, the Philippine archipelago harbors the highest marine biodiversity in the world, including the highest number of fish species and marine mammals. The country has in recent decades awakened to the great treasure in tourist attractions that lie along the extensive coastlines of the country, including the most beautiful beaches in the world.

The ocean has in fact always influenced the history of the Filipino people. The very origins of the archipelago’s diverse population are marked by the coming of migrants from the sea over the centuries. Philippine labor built and sailed the galleons that brought the first globalization of international trade. Even now Filipino seamen manning the ocean-going vessels of the world distinguish themselves by their great numbers and reputation for competence and industry. Indeed there is no want of indications that the Philippines can be a great maritime country.

It may be from the lack of this consciousness  that Filipinos have still to summon the will to meet satisfactorily  the challenges facing the country as an archipelagic state. The current situation of  the Philippine Coast Guard and the Philippine Navy as among the weakest in the region today can lead one to question  whether the country has a defense system and strategy appropriate to the Philippine archipelago. While history provides ample lessons on how tempting the Philippines’ strategic location and natural resources can be to expansionist powers, there are new threats,  possibly more destructive than invading armies, that those institutions must be equipped to tackle.  The country must strengthen its Coast Guard and Navy not only to deter covetous aggressors but also to  protect the archipelago from pandemics, transnational crimes, and the unprecedented disasters brought by a deteriorating natural environment.

The legal unity conferred by UNCLOS on the Philippine archipelago has still to be matched by the factual unity brought by transportation and communication infrastructures connecting its various islands and peoples, particularly those that would make movement and commerce affordable to the poor. Security experts have warned that the lack of unifying infrastructures make archipelagos particularly prone to being afflicted by insurgencies. Various proposals to improve the country’s political system such as federalism and greater autonomy to local government units may not achieve their goal of governance efficiency but only tend to fragment the country, without unifying, interconnecting infrastructures. On the other hand, the cultural diversity that is a natural consequence of our being an archipelago, far from being a handicap, can be an advantage if our diverse cultures are brought into synergy stimulating creativity and innovation, by interconnecting transportation and communication. The engineering capability of Filipinos to connect the country’s various islands  was proved decades ago with the construction of the San Juanico Bridge between Samar and Leyte, a feat that unfortunately has not  been been replicated especially  between Mindanao and the Visayas.

The regime of the archipelagic states in UNCLOS Part IV leaves many issues and concerns to national legislation and implementing and regulating instrumentalities. Among them is the duty to allow the right of archipelagic sealanes passage for foreign vessels in regard to freedom of navigation and protecting the delicate regional marine environment, biodiversity,  and fisheries.

The importance of the oceans in foreign affairs was apparently not lost on the founding fathers of the Philippine Republic: the first Department of Foreign Affairs was fused with the Department of the Navy. But ocean concerns were accorded peripheral treatment until UNCLOS. With the conflicting claims in the South China Sea, the importance of the DFA’s Office of Ocean Concerns has been of increasing centrality. There is hopefully in the DFA a growing realization that archipelagic states have a greater stake in the ocean than coastal and other states for their national security and sustainable economic development. The Philippine archipelago, situated within enclosed and semi-enclosed seas, including the South China (West Philippine) Sea and the larger part of the Coral Triangle, in what is considered by the International Maritime Organization as a Particularly Sensitive Area, must  by Nature and its interests be a champion and protector of the regional marine environment.   Filipino diplomats, in particular, should be interested in the development of international oceans law and policy and concerned with ocean governance, marine environmental protection and marine resource conservation.

Considering how vitally the oceans affect the lives of  Filipinos, inculcation of the archipelagic consciousness must be made part of the education of the young and their preparation for future roles as leaders and citizens. Truly, the future security and well-being of the country rests on its ability to meet the challenges it faces as an archipelagic state.

The authors are retired ambassadors of the Philippines.

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