Letter to the Editor

By the Xavier University Debating Circle
August 9, 2011, 4:00 pm

The truth doesn’t hurt, ignorance does

This is a response to a previous article in the June issue of the The Crusader concerning the Spratly Islands dispute. The author basically claimed that the Philippines’s presence in the Spratlys constitute nothing more than an illegal land grab that undermines the sovereignty of other claimants. The author further stressed the necessity of this country “dropping” the Spratlys claim in favor of more credible and “more pressing” territorial claims in Sabah. The said claims are based on the following assertions which I will categorically discuss:

1. The assertion that the Philippines has the weakest territorial claim. The author simplistically stated that the UNCLOS (United Nations Convention on the Laws of the Seas) cannot supersede rival historical and geopolitical claims, and thus the Philippine claim, which is in large part, based on UNCLOS, is the weakest. This is problematic since the only way to assess which claim supersedes the rest requires comparative analysis on all party’s territorial arguments. While it is conceded that the UNCLOS cannot be used to settle territorial disputes, it still represents a widely used standard to determine the extent of maritime boundaries based on reasonable and internationally accepted concepts of internal waters, archipelagic doctrines, continental shelf and exclusive economic zones (EEZ). It is also worth noting that the previous article conveniently neglected the fact that 161 countries, which have maritime boundaries (including China and all the Spratlys claimants), have signed and ratified the UNCLOS and thus binding themselves in principle to abide by conventional standards. The importance of UNCLOS in assessing rival claims is further highlighted by the fact that China, the most aggressive of the claimants, used its own skewed version of the concept of archipelagic territorial waters under the UNCLOS to add weight to its claim.

For the Chinese, the presence of insular territories like Hainan and that Paracel Isles qualifies China as a nation with the same archipelagic claim to maritime territories in between and adjacent to separated land masses that true Archipelagic States (like Japan and the Philippines) have. This conveniently neglects the fact that this concept was clearly intended for nation whose territories by a large majority do not form a single contiguous geographical feature (An Archipelago). Not even five percent of total Chinese territory in contrast exhibits the same insular attributes. The consequence of this absurd claim is that, all maritime features located in between mainland China and Chinese occupied Spratlys should be should be considered Chinese internal waters and that the Resulting EEZ and continental shelf doesn’t start in mainland China but starts at the farthest Chinese controlled feature (Mischief Reef, Part of the disputed Islands, a mere 125 miles from Palawan’s west coast). If it is true then not only would China be the undisputed owner the Kalayaan Group occupied by our country, but Palawan at its adjacent Islands by being only 125 nautical miles from mischief reef, also falls under Chinese EEZ by default!

Furthermore, if the Chinese concept of archipelagic states also applies to other nations with minor overseas insular territories then US would ridiculously own all of the North and Central Pacific in between California and Marianas Islands and The UK would, with equal absurdity, own all of the Atlantic in between the British Isles and the dependencies of Bermuda and the Falkands. In contrast, the Philippine claim based on the UNCLOS is the most reasonable among all arguments based on the same convention. Our Claim is only limited to the Kalayaan group and adjacent featuers that are located within our EEZ and our rightful continental shelf starting from Palawan’s coast. In fact, due to our close proximity (125 miles from Palawan vs. 2200 miles from the undisputed Chinese territory of Hainan Island), the Philippines when claiming the Kalayaan group is the party most capable of substantiating continental shelf control and EEZ claims to be the International Maritime Organization.
Claims based on historical grounds are also highly problematic. China claims the Spratlys belonged to China based on medieval documents that obscurely mentions the “Nansha Islands” in a Han Dynasty naval expedition to the Islands 12th century AD. First, historical succession (Even if we can swallow the absurdity of the assertion that present Communist China is the legal successor to a distant medieval state) does not translate to legal succession. If all historical claims were deemed legal under international law, then Tibet, which was never historically part of China until the Chinese invasion, should not rightfully be under Chinese Sovereignty. Furthermore, China’s neighbor to the northwest, Mongolia, the historical heirs to Kublai Khan, ruler of 13th century China would suddenly have a viable historical claim against China. Even its own ally, North Korea will have viable historical claims of parts of Manchuria as it was previously occupied by the medieval Korean Kingdom of Goguryeo based on present day North Korea. I could not even count the list of equally absurd claims against China other nations would have if we base it on history.
Claims based on geopolitical considerations are valid only if a nation can establish that it practiced sovereign functions like the administration of a permanent settlement. Fact remains that before the Philippines established a municipality based on Pag-asa Island, the disputed territory was largely unsettled and therefore ungovernable. The closest thing China has to offer to prove continuous sovereign control is the presence of Chinese fishermen who, supposedly, regularly fish in Kalayaan waters since the time of the Han. Problem with this assertion is that this claim is not mutually exclusive to China. If the measure of control is economic exploitation of resources, pre-colonial Filipino civilizations not only possessed the same capacity but also being within much closer proximity, a reasonable assumption can be deduced that our ancestors themselves exercised the same exploitation of the area’s maritime resources for at least as long as the Chinese themselves, making our claim for continuous control not the weakest, but at least equal to the strongest claim.

2. The assertion that the Philippines does not have an interest in forwarding its claims. The basic problem with previous article in terms of proving that “we have no business” in the disputed area is the utter lack of supporting analysis. In fact, I find it distasteful to call your people warmongering “hypocrites” without explaining the context with which this lack of interest supposedly exists. To constructively discuss the opposite, our business in the part of the Spratlys beyond principles of ownership covers the two things: security and economics.

On the issue of Security, our continued presence is essential in forwarding the concept of external defense. It doesn’t take a lot of thinking to realize that Chinese Military Facilities in the Mischief Reef and Sabina Shoal (Both Chinese occupied features in the Spratly Group) constitutes a dagger pointed at the heart of our nation a proposed airstrip located in these areas so close to us will constitute in making Manila, and even Cagayan de Oro with striking range of the Chinese PLAFF (People’s Liberation – Air Force) Tupolev 22 Heavy Bomber Aircraft, something which our own defenses have minimal capability against. Military Capacity will always strengthen our rival claim. Continued Chinese Upgrade in Military force in the Area even further diminishes our already minimal capability to defend ourselves.

On the Issue of Economic need, our interest lay with the Area’s abundance in fuel resources. The author of the previous went so far in proving his/her own ignorance by explicitly stating that “no scientific evidence suggests that valuable resources exists in the Kalayaan Group”. Of course this assertion flies in the face of 1994 US geological survey, estimating that recoverable crude oil resources in the area amounted 105 billion barrels (Close to Kuwait’s Proven Oil Resources). A more recent survey conducted by PNOC and Shell Philippines has appraised that Sampaguita Gas Field alone (located in Reed Bank, less than 100 miles from Palawan) contains more than 4 TCF (Four Trillion Cubic Feet) of Natural Gas Reserves. In contrast, our largest current Gas Field, Malampaya (also operated by Shell and PNOC); North West of Palawan only contains 3.5 TCF. Our nation’s dream of economic prosperity spearheaded by developing a self-sufficiency in fuel production clearly has a stake in maintaining our sovereign control of our EEZ and continental shelf.

3. The Assertion that the Philippines has more legitimate Claim to Sabah and therefore should assert territorial rights in the Area as opposed to the Spratlys. Of the three assertions, we find this last one most disturbing of all. Previous article asserted that our claims in Sabah hold more water due to our affinity with the Sultanate of Sulu which leased Sabah to the British, when Malaysia was still a Colony of the British Crown. The problem with this analysis is that it conveniently neglects the fact that on all discussed standards of claims, Malaysia clearly has the better claim unlike in the Spratlys. First, the Sultanate of Sulu is an extinct political entity which the Philippine government cannot claim of the Han Dynasty. Second, there clearly was no reassignment of territorial rights in favor of the Philippine government made by the Sultanate of Sulu prior to its dissolution (Even neglecting the fact that the Sultanate no longer exerted any form of sovereign control of Sabah by then). Third, neither the Malaysian, Philippine or any existing state, for that matter, recognize the existence of Sulu as a sovereign political entity capable of making its own territorial reassignments independent of other powers. Fourth, in terms of Geographical claim, Sabah forms a land mass directly contiguous with Malaysian state of Sarawak, something which we have no equal claim. Lastly, and most compelling of all, is that, unlike the Spratlys, Sabah has a people capable of exercising the right to self-determination. Arguably the will of the People of Sabah, a referendum asking them which country they want to belong to overwhelmingly resulted in Malaysia’s favor. This is probably the reason why Cory’s government already recognized Malaysian Sovereignty making the assertion of the previous article a completely baseless sham.

Contrary to what the author of the previous article concluded, our resolve to maintain our Kalayaan territories is not “misplaced nationalism”. In fact, compared to the blatant Chinese show of force and diplomatic pressure, our nationalistic tendencies have extremely limited to avoid direct confrontation with much more powerful China. If there are parties showing misplaced self-belief and undue determination to forward greedy nationalistic agenda then the author must have surely noticed how China conducted itself in this dispute. In the face of naked and increasing aggression even involving Chinese warships firing live rounds against Filipino Fishermen, in the face of repeated military incursions against defenseless Philippine waters, far from exhibiting a nationalistic tendency to resort to force, this country was able to show resistance only in the diplomatic arena. We do not know what sort of aggression it requires before the author deems it necessary to justify our nationalistic resolve to remain in the Spratlys, but it's definitely not misplaced to feel threatened when another claimant shows no hesitation to use force and utter disregard for the agreed conducts of engagement. But then again, judging by the content of that article, we’re not really sure if the author's mind is in its proper place.