Fighting over Islands

What are the principles by which claims to the Spratley Islands can be resolved? And how do we sort them out?

Possible Standards for Deciding Who Gets What

China argues territorial rights by historical precedent. It’s fishermen have long fished these islands and they are within the Communist realm’s 1949 “nine-dash map” of territorial claim. Therefore, they belong to China. Never mind that no other Asian Pacific country accepts the nine-dash delineation. The problem is that none protested it from 1949 to 1970.
Well, China is a nation of 1.35 billion residents and its resource demands are enormous. It is the big hungry dog of Planet Earth and the Philippines must seem like a cute little puppy to the beast. If not lunch . . .
The Philippines also argues for historical precedence, by prior various visitations and occupancy of some islands. It has all the argumentative weight of a 90 pound weakling with sand kicked into its eyes by the muscular brute pushing its way across the seas.
But history is the first of the conceivable standards we can use to sort this out:
  • Standard 1: Historical Precedence
The fundamental truth is that no nation has inhabited most of these islands, although many have touched upon them. Habitation is virtually impossible because many are bare rocks and the logistics of support make residency difficult. The Philippines does have residents on Pag-asa Island near Palawan, and perhaps others as well. China recently objected to the establishment of a kindergarten school on  Pag-asa by Filipino residents. Clearly, the Chinese know nothing about the Philippines or where Filipinos live.  They are blindly pushing their ideological line of ownership of the seas.
Occupation is another possible standard, and favors the Philippines on at least one island.
  • Standard 2: Occupation
The Philippines bases its case on UN rules which define a nation’s territory to extend 200 miles from its shores: United National Convention of the Laws of the Sea (UNCLOS). The Philippines signed the agreement In 1982*. China withdrew from the mandatory enforcement provision of UNCLOS in 2006. Still, the UN standard is a strong argument and is the one applied by the Philippines as it pursues oil exploration in the vicinity of the Spratley’s Reed Bank (within 200 miles of the Philippines).
  • Standard 3: Distance within 200 miles, per UNCLOS.
Standard three is geographic integrity. That is, is the disputed land somehow connected by land mass to the nation staking claim? Are the Spratleys an integral part of the Philippine Islands, for instance? We’ll look at some topographical maps shortly. It appears that this standard does not help the Philippines. Nor does it help China.
  • Standard 4: Geographic Integrity
There is another standard, and that is called pushing and shoving. It is the standard by which China is living as it argues historical precedence and insists its nine-dash line is definitive, although no other nation recognizes it.
  • Standard 5: Biggest Bombs
Well, being the biggest bully is certainly no rational basis for adjudicating claims. Although it is a common one. It is how the American Indians lost their claim to the richest lands in the world. But we will set the matter aside, because if it ever comes into play, we will simply let the U.S. and China sort it out.
Also, it would seem to me that historical claim is wobbly for the simple reason that times have changed. The fact that China likes to fish near these islands has no relevance to the fact that it is oil that is now important, not fish. China’s fishermen have no claim on the oil. Grabbing some fish is not tantamount to planting a flag and staking a land claim, or an oil claim, for China. Especially when the land is right next to some other country.  It is fishing. That’s all it is.
The Lay of the Land . . . er, Seas
Here are four maps.
The first (MAP 1) is China’s Nine-Dash Map. It is silly, is it not? Never in the history of the world has territorial claim been laid out by a four year-old’s crayon drawing, with no foundation other than someone saying “I think it should go like this!”
The second Map (MAP 2) shows the general lay of the land and seas. China and the Philippines recently had a dustup over what the Philippines calls “Scarborough Shoal”. This uninhabited but rich fishing area is 140 miles from Luzon. The Spratleys are more to the south. Neither is geographically contiguous to any nation, as the topography illustrates.
 The third Map (MAP 3) confirms that Scarborough Shoals is within the 200 mile UN territorial line. A rill (underground canyon) separates this island’s topography from the Philippines.
 The last map (MAP 4) shows the Spratley Islands in relation to the 200 mile mark. The Philippines, under UN guidelines, has rightful claim to approximately one fourth of the islands, Malaysia also one fourth, and about half would reside outside the 200 mile mark for any nation.

JoeAm’s Suggested Approach for the Philippines
The Philippines should adhere to its categorical rejection of the nine-dash map and encourage other nations also to oppose the claim as illogical and hostile to nations in the West Pacific. China must learn to respect other nations. Fishing in a sea does not stake a national claim to that sea. The US cannot claim the entire Pacific because its boats ply the waters there.
I am not a great fan of the Akbayan Party, but appreciated the perspective of Congressman Walden Bello as he responded to China’s strange criticism of the new school at Pag-asa:
“Building a school within our territory cannot in any way undermine China’s sovereignty.  The Philippine government has all the right to make use of its own territory especially to provide social services to its people. It’s already bad that China is infringing on our sovereignty with its unimpeded incursions. Now it is virtually telling us where we can and cannot implement infrastructure projects within our territory. It is absurd and boorish.”
Boorish China is.
President Aquino’s approach is correct. He has stated that the Philippines considers the UN 200 mile boundary reasonable and enforceable. He can pursue a case for UN endorsement of Philippine territorial boundaries, whether China agrees or not. It isolates China in the international community. There is no other body qualified to mediate the dispute. Certainly China cannot be trusted to operate with good will toward the Philippines in one-on-one dialogue.
Beyond that, the Philippines should identify a specific set of civilian goals and gain U.S. concurrence with them. This should include: (1) oil exploration and drilling within the 200 mile zone, and (2) establishing needed residential services on islands where Filipinos live (e.g., schools, electricity, water).
The Philippines should continue to pursue a plan for shared development of resources on the portion of the Spratleys that is not within the boundaries of any other nation.
Is there a need for tact?
To a point.
The fundamental Philippine position should be low key. On the other hand, the Philippines should heartily protest Chinese bullying when it rears its ugly head, such as when an admiral recently stated that Chinese naval boats should attack Philippine vessels. The Chinese ambassador should be summoned to the Philippine Foreign Ministry every time this occurs, and a protest lodged. And every time China mentions the nine-dash line or territorial ownership of the entire South China Sea, that point should be rebutted as absurd by Foreign Affairs spokesmen.
President Aquino should keep his own thoughts out of public media. He should reserve his authority for very serious messages only. Like issuing an ultimatum for Chinese military ships to leave Philippine waters. If he speaks too often, he dilutes the power of his voice.
Scarborough Shoals is clearly within the Philippine territorial claim and China’s nine-dash map looks as greedy and illogical as it appears in MAP 1. Yet China has fished there for years. How does the Philippines push fishing vessels out? That is almost impossible.  Position: allow Chinese vessels to fish while constantly monitoring for illegal fishing, removal of coral, or other damaging activities.
What would the Philippines do if China moved oil exploration equipment onto the islands? Or continued to defend against Philippine enforcement of illegal activities? Or patrolled in Philippine waters with Chinese military boats?
That is a different matter, and the Philippines would be wise to explore ideas with the United States. The Philippines is ill equipped to enforce any action against an armada of Chinese military vessels. But conceding any island within 200 miles would be a horrible precedent, and allowing the Chinese to operate militarily within Philippine waters is tantamount to occupation.
Beyond that, the Philippines should pursue its interests, and even allow or encourage further inhabitancy of any islands within the 200 mile range. It need not ask China for permission. It need not broadcast its plans and programs, in respect of China’s very childish “face” issues. It should just do it.
In summary:
  1. Pursue UN endorsement of Philippine claims
  2. Rebut every senseless Chinese utterance through Foreign Affairs.
  3. Hold the President’s power in reserve for major issues.
  4. Consult with the U.S. on specific hypothetical Chinese aggressions and prepare for them.
  5. Occupy the habitable islands within 200 miles as a normal course of Philippine business.
 *Philippine conditions attached to its 1982 signature on UNCLOS:
1. The signing of the Convention by the Government of the Republic of the Philippines shall not in any manner impair or prejudice the sovereign rights of the Republic of the Philippines under and arising from the Constitution of the Philippines.
2. Such signing shall not in any manner affect the sovereign rights of the Republic of the Philippines as successor of the United States of America, under and arising out of the Treaty of Paris between Spain and the United States of America of 10 December 1898, and the Treaty of Washington between the United States of America and Great Britain of 2 January 1930.
3. Such signing shall not diminish or in any manner affect the rights and obligations of the contracting parties under the Mutual Defence Treaty between the Philippines and the United States of America of 30 August 1951 and its related interpretative instruments; nor those under any other pertinent bilateral or multilateral treaty or agreement to which the Philippines is a party.
4. Such signing shall not in any manner impair or prejudice the sovereignty of the Republic of the Philippines over any territory over which it exercises sovereign authority, such as the Kalayaan Islands, and the waters appurtenant thereto.
5. The Convention shall not be construed as amending in any manner any pertinent laws and Presidential Decrees or Proclamation of the Republic of the Philippines; the Government of the Republic of the Philippines maintains and reserves the right and authority to make any amendments to such laws, decrees or proclamations pursuant to the provisions of the Philippines Constitution.
6. The provisions of the Convention on archipelagic passage through sea lanes do not nullify or impair the sovereignty of the Philippines as an archipelagic State over the sea lanes and do not deprive it of authority to enact legislation to protect its sovereignty, independence and security.
7. The concept of archipelagic waters is similar to the concept of internal waters under the Constitution of the Philippines, and removes straits connecting these waters with the economic zone or high sea from the rights of foreign vessels to transit passage for international navigation.
8. The agreement of the Republic of the Philippines to the submission for peaceful resolution, under any of the procedures provided in the Convention, of disputes under article 298 shall not be considered as a derogation of Philippines sovereignty.
2 Responses to “Fighting over Islands”
  1. Anonymous says:

    From: Island jim-e (aka: the cricket)Question: Would it be possible to include making part of these areas a national oceanpark reserve? If so then many good things may come from such designation: a breedingground-generator-incubator to support thefish population-repopulation. Making some of present Pinoy inhabitants "guards", "police",preservation and re-generation experts (createa steady income/employment for the islandpopulation) and then provide incenitives forprivate corporation eco-tourist facilitiesand programs. The tourists could provide moreincome from underwater-tours- watch, re-planting the damaged coral, scientific volunteer support, and other submarine projects. I would support such a "swimingly" wonderfulproject to preserve, serve and protect ourenvironment. Think of the potential to capture a good market share of touristdollar income, generate good will among ourworld nations and encourage a showcase efforton the part of a progressive PH government!More taxing revenues income to solve ournational needs, crisis and disasters! Awin-win opportunity!

  2. I personally think this is a superb idea. Indeed, the entire region surrounding Palawan should be designated "preserved" as Australia protects the Great Barrier Reef. Provision for licensed oil drilling and fishing can be made. The wealth attached to oil is too valuable to the Philippines to seal off, I think. The real problem hereabouts is not the laws, however, but the failure to enforce them. So any plan should set aside ample resources for enforcement.

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