West Philippine Sea
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte said 05 May 2021 the country's arbitral victory in 2016 against China's claims in the South China Sea was just a piece of paper and he will throw it away. In 2016, an arbitration tribunal in The Hague dismissed China's claims over most of the South China Sea. The case had been filed by the Philippines. Duterte said the Philippines won the case, but the ruling is just a piece of paper that led to nothing. Amid calls for beefing up the country's maritime defense, the president questioned if it is necessary to send the navy and coast guard to the sea area. He said it would be a waste of people's lives. Duterte described China as the major supplier of coronavirus vaccines, noting that the Philippines is indebted to the country. Local media criticized the president, saying he avoided confronting China because he wants vaccines from the country.
The Philippine Coast Guard drove away Chinese militia ships from a Manila-claimed reef in the South China Sea in late April, the national security adviser said 04 May 2021, while declaring that Filipino fishermen are exempt from Beijing’s annual fishing ban in the disputed waterway and other seas. The coast guard’s BRP Cabra, backed by other ships, shooed away seven Chinese ships from Sabina Shoal on April 27, National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon Jr. said. Esperon also serves as chairman of the country’s National Task Force for the West Philippine Sea (NTF-WPS), The reef is 130 nautical miles west of Puerto Princesa in Palawan province, within the Philippines’ 200-mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ).
Manila and Beijing traded barbs since March 2021 when the Philippine government called out the presence of about 200 Chinese ships gathered near Whitsun Reef in the Philippine EEZ but which Beijing claims as its territory, along with most of the South China Sea. Manila had been filing daily diplomatic protests with Beijing over what it called “Chinese maritime militia” intruding, but Beijing repeatedly denied the accusation, saying the vessels were fishing boats in Chinese territory.
The Philippines’ armed forces chief said 22 April 2021 the country was considering building structures in areas that Manila claims in the South China Sea, as he accused China of doing so, despite a 2002 agreement barring new or expanded construction in disputed waters. The statement was the strongest yet from a Filipino military officer amid a fresh dispute with Beijing over the discovery of scores of Chinese ships in the country’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ). “The reason we did not build structures in the past was an agreement that no one should build anything there. However, China violated that,” Gen. Cirilito Sobejana told reporters in an online briefing.
He was referring to a 2002 non-binding pact between China and member-states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), in which the parties agreed to refrain “from action of inhabiting on the presently uninhabited islands” and other natural features of the contested waterway. China has continued to expand facilities in islands it controls and build artificial islands, Sobejana said, adding the Philippines could do the same. “We are also entertaining the idea, of course, subject to the wisdom of the National Task Force on the West Philippine Sea, of us building structures in the area just as China is doing,” Sobejana said.
The Philippines will no longer participate in joint maritime exercises in the South China Sea with other countries, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said 03 August 2020. According to Lorenzana, President Rodrigo Duterte issued this directive to reduce tension in the contested waterway. "President Rodrigo Duterte has a standing order to us, to me, that we should not involve ourselves in naval exercises in the South China Sea except our national waters, the 12 mile distance from our shores," Lorenzana said at an online press briefing.
In his penultimate State of the Nation Address in July 2020, Duterte admitted that he is "useless" on the West Philippine Sea issue as China has "possession" of the area. The West Philippine Sea is the portion of the South China Sea which is within Philippine exclusive economic zone. The president, once again, insisted that asserting the Philippines' sovereign rights over the West Philippine Sea would entail going to war with China. "China is claiming it, we are claiming it. China has the arms. We do not have it. So, it's simple as that," Duterte said.
Retired Supreme Court Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio said the president should not say that China is in possession of the Philippines' exclusive economic zone in the West Philippine Sea because this is not the case. "China does not possess Philippine EEZ which is beyond the 12-nautical mile territorial seas of disputed islands or high-tide geologic features," Carpio said in a statement. Carpio, part of the Philippine delegation in the South China Sea arbitration, stressed that naval power like the US, the UK, France, Australia, Japan and Canada regularly sail in the West Philippine Sea, proving that Beijing is not in possession of the area.
He also pointed out that Vietnam, Malaysia and Indonesia are asserting their sovereign rights to their maritime zones against China's claims without going to war. "A country does not need to go to war to assert its sovereign rights. There are lawful and peaceful means of asserting sovereign rights," Carpio earlier said.
China’s 9-dash line claim encompasses practically the entire West Philippine Sea (WPS). The Philippine Government has been active in efforts to reduce tensions among rival claimants to the territories and waters of the resource-rich South China Sea. The Spratly Islands, some 100-230 islets, atolls, coral reefs, and seamounts spreading over 250,000 square kilometers on the South China Sea, are the object of overlapping sovereignty claims by China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia, and Brunei. Although the Spratlys encompass less than five square kilometers of land area, the likely presence of oil, gas, and other mineral resources has kept the islands in the forefront as a regional irritant.
The 2002 ASEAN-China Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea lowered tensions in the region, and in 2005, the Joint Marine Seismic Undertaking (JMSU) agreement among China, Vietnam, and the Philippines coordinated "pre-exploration" of possible hydrocarbon reserves. Following allegations of kickbacks and corruption, the Arroyo administration had little choice but to allow the JMSU agreement to lapse when in expired at the end of June 2008.
Under the 1898 Treaty of Paris whereby Spain ceded the Philippines to the United States, the Spratlys were defined as a "regime of islands" outside the baselines. The majority of the Spratlys lie with the Philippines' 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) granted under UNCLOS, while none appear to lie within China's or Taiwan's EEZs or extended continental shelves (ECSs). The Philippine Senate and House agreed in early 2009 to exclude the disputed Spratly Islands from the country's baselines, defining them instead under the terms of the UN Convention on Law of the Sea as a "regime of islands" -- although still subject to Philippine claims.
Notwithstanding Chinese diplomatic protests over the Philippines' Spratlys claims, the accomodation achieved in the Philippine Congress appeared to offer the best hope of moderating tensions in Southeast Asia over the disputed islands, while defusing past charges in the Philippine Congress and the media that the Arroyo administration had performed inadequately in defending Philippine sovereignty over these islands.
In the first eight months of 2011, tensions rose in relation to long-standing territorial disputes involving the Republic, other Southeast Asian nations (including Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei) and China over certain islands in the West Philippine Sea, also known as the South China Sea. The increased tensions were brought about by allegations of more aggressive measures being taken by certain nations to assert their claims in these disputes.
On July 20, 2011, representatives of the claimant nations, along with other members of ASEAN, met in Bali, Indonesia to discuss how to advance the negotiations with respect to the competing claims. At this meeting, these nations, including China, agreed on basic guidelines for adopting a code of conduct between nations in relation to the disputed areas. The Republic maintains that its claim over the disputed territories is supported by recognized principles of international law consistent with the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.
The Republic reiterated its position in November 2011 during the ASEAN and East Asia summits in Bali, Indonesia, where China, the United States and representatives from a number of Asian countries were in attendance. The Republic also proposed a new peace plan for the disputed waters which it labeled the “Zone of Peace, Freedom, Friendship and Cooperation.” The plan aims to clearly define the territorial claims of different countries in the region and then to cooperate in respecting those parts of the region where certain countries have undisputed claims, leaving the disputed territories for later resolution. No agreement has been reached to implement this plan.
On 22 January 2013 the Philippines brought China before an Arbitral Tribunal under Article 287 and Annex VII of the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) in order to achieve a peaceful and durable solution to the dispute over the West Philippine Sea (WPS). The initiation of Arbitral Proceedings against China on the nine-dash line was an operationalization of President Aquino’s policy for a peaceful and rules-based resolution of disputes in the WPS in accordance with international law specifically UNCLOS. The Philippines had exhausted almost all political and diplomatic avenues for a peaceful negotiated settlement of its maritime dispute with China. On numerous occasions, dating back to 1995, the Philippines has been exchanging views with China to peacefully settle these disputes.
The Philippines asserted that China’s so-called nine-dash line claim that encompasses virtually the entire South China Sea/West Philippine Sea is contrary to UNCLOS and thus unlawful. Within the maritime area encompassed by the 9-dash line, China also laid claim to, occupied and built structures on certain submerged banks, reefs and low tide elevations that do not qualify as islands under UNCLOS, but are parts of the Philippine continental shelf, or the international seabed. In addition, China occupied certain small, uninhabitable coral projections that are barely above water at high tide, and which are “rocks” under Article 121(3) of UNCLOS.
The Philippines argued that international law had never accepted sweeping claims to vast areas of sea and has, since the early seventeenth century, recognized State control only over a narrow band adjacent to the coast. According to the Philippines, the Convention is comprehensive and the entirety of the South China Sea is accounted for and governed by the regime therein. Where the Convention intended to preserve other rights, it did so expressly, but no such provision recognizes rights on the scope being claimed by China. In any event, however, the Philippines submits that China has no historic rights. The Philippines contends that before the early twentieth century China identified its territory as extending no further south than Hainan and that China’s claim to sovereignty over the islands of the South China Sea emerged only in the 1930s.
According to the Philippines, Mischief Reef, Second Thomas Shoal, Subi Reef, Gaven Reef, and McKennan Reef (including Hughes Reef) are each “low-tide elevations”, meaning that they are exposed at low-tide but submerged by the sea at high-tide. Under the Convention, low-tide elevations produce no independent entitlement to maritime zones. According to the Philippines, Scarborough Shoal, Johnson Reef, Cuarteron Reef, and Fiery Cross Reef are each “rocks” for the purposes of the Convention. Under the Convention, “rocks” are islands “which cannot sustain human habitation or economic life of their own” and which are entitled to a 12 nautical mile territorial sea, but not to a 200 nautical mile exclusive economic zone or continental shelf.
China had interfered with the lawful exercise by the Philippines of its rights within its legitimate maritime zones, as well as to the aforementioned features and their surrounding waters. The Philippines was conscious of China’s Declaration of August 25, 2006 under Article 298 of UNCLOS (regarding optional exceptions to the compulsory proceedings), and has avoided raising subjects or making claims that China has, by virtue of that Declaration, excluded from arbitral jurisdiction.
In June 2014 the Philippines urged the United Nations tribunal to speed up its ruling on Manila's case against China's claims in the South China Sea. It is estimated that it will take several years for the tribunal to issue a decision in the case which was filed by the Philippines in March. China does not recognize international arbitration of the dispute and has refused to defend itself or otherwise take part in the proceedings.
At the ASEAN meetings in Nay Pyi Taw in August 2014, the Philippines advanced its proposal – the Triple Action Plan (TAP) - as a concrete framework to address the escalating tensions in the South China Sea. The TAP was first informally announced by the Philippines in late June 2014 as tensions in the waters off Vietnam heightened due to emplacement of the Chinese Oil Rig HD981.
As an immediate approach, the TAP calls for a moratorium on specific activities that escalate tension in the South China Sea. This approach brings to fore the need for a more concrete definition of paragraph 5 of the ASEAN-China Declaration of Conduct on the South China Sea (DOC). For the intermediate approach, the TAP highlights the need and call for the full and effective implementation of the DOC and the expeditious conclusion of the Code of Conduct.
As a final approach, the TAP underscores the need for settlement mechanism to bring the disputes to a final and enduring resolution anchored on international law. The Philippines is pursuing such a resolution through Arbitration and believes that the Arbitration award will clarify the maritime entitlements for all parties, which will be the basis for the settlement of maritime disputes.
Throughout the administration of President Benigno Aquino, Manila and Beijing had been at odds over sovereignty in the resource-rich sea. Manila took a strong “what’s ours is ours” position, while Beijing reiterated its “indisputable sovereignty” over the sea. The two sides could not come to terms in bilateral talks.
The international community watched closely as the new administration of incoming Rodrigo Duterte president navigated a geopolitical landscape where tensions between China and the United States are escalating. In the days following the 09 May 2016 election, China expressed hope that a new administration would meet Beijing halfway to resolve its disputes with Manila in the South China Sea. “So as to put the ties of the two countries back on the track of sound development,” said China's Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang.
Throughout his campaign, Duterte expressed a willingness to deal with China directly, mentioning joint development. At one point, Duterte said he agreed with China for not participating in the case because even if any decision is binding, it has no enforcement mechanism. But he also said if bilateral talks got nowhere, he would ride a jet ski to a disputed outcropping, plant a Philippine flag there and expect to die a hero at the hands of the Chinese.
President Rodrigo Duterte said 26 September 2016 the Philippines would bow out of any future US-led patrols in the South China Sea to avoid the possibility of any worsening of the existing territorial dispute with China. He denied his government was reluctant to assert its rights in the area, however. "I will not join in the patrol in the China Sea,” he said. “There will never be an occasion that I will send grey ships [warships] there, not because I am afraid. … Anyway, I have this ruling of the international arbitration court which is that the South China Sea, the entitlements there are ours."
"So I am serving notice now to the Americans and to those around: I will maintain the military alliance because there is the R.P.-U.S. pact which our countries signed in the early '50s, but I will establish new alliances for trade and commerce,” Duterte said. “And [we] are scheduled to hold war games again, which China does not want. I would serve notice ... now that this will be the last military exercise. Jointly, Philippines-U.S., the last one."
When Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte visited China in October, some worried he was pivoting away from the United States. But Tran Truong Thuy, executive director of the Foundation for East Sea Studies in Hanoi, said this is good news for the South China Sea. He said that if China is getting friendlier with the Philippines, then it is unlikely to threaten that progress, for example, by reclaiming islands near the Philippines. “For China now to conduct reclamation, it would turn back normalization in relations between China and the Philippines,” said Thuy, whose institute takes the Vietnamese name of the South China Sea. “And I think in the near future, in the short, near future, I don’t think China will conduct this kind of activity.”
There is very strong anti-China sentiment in the Philippines, and a very pro-American security establishment. If China foolishly moved forward and buildt facilities on the Scarborough shoal, it would be very difficult for Duterte to sell any agreement with China.
In early 1995, the Philippines discovered a primitive Chinese military structure on Mischief Reef in the Spratly Islands, one hundred and thirty nautical miles off the coast of Palawan. The Philippine government issued a formal protest over China's occupation of the reef and the Philippine Navy arrested sixty-two Chinese fishermen at Half Moon Shoal, eighty kilometers from Palawan. A week later, following confirmation from surveillance pictures that the structures were of military design, President Fidel Ramos had the military forces in the region strengthened. He ordered the Philippine Air Force to dispatch five F-5 fighters backed by four jet trainers and two helicopters, while the navy sent two additional ships. The People’s Republic of China had claimed that the structures were shelters for fishermen but these small incidents could have triggered a war in the South China Sea.
For four years, Chinese ships had blockaded the disputed Scarborough Shoal, a lagoon rich in fish stocks, and forced fishermen from the Philippines to travel farther for smaller catches. China's foreign ministry saying that the situation at Scarborough Shoal "has not changed and will not change." The Philippine defense minister and the president's spokesman on 28 October 2016 said Chinese ships had withdrawn from the area. Within two days, defense and coast guard officials said Chinese were still there, but had scaled back their presence since Duterte's visit. Some Philippine fishermen returned with big smiles and bountiful catches, reporting no interference from the Chinese as they accessed the lagoon. Satellite imagery taken by the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative and the Center for Strategic and International Studies, however, showed fishermen were not entering the shoal itself and were working on its periphery, with China's coast guard still present. The blockade meant fishermen had to be at sea three times longer to catch the kind of volumes of fish they would at Scarborough.
The Philippines lost the Scarborough Shoal to Chinese forces in 2012. On April 8, 2012, during one of its regular maritime patrols, a Philippine Navy surveillance aircraft identified eight Chinese fishing vessels anchored inside and around Bajo de Masinloc (Scarborough Shoal), an area in the Municipality of Masinloc, Province of Zambales that the Republic regards as an integral part of its territory. The area is located 124 nautical miles west of Zambales and is within the Republic’s 200 nautical-mile Exclusive Economic Zone and the Philippine Continental Shelf.
On April 10, 2012, the BRP Gregorio del Pilar dispatched an inspection team that reported that large amounts of illegally collected corals, clams and sharks were found in the compartments of the fishing vessels. The arrival of Chinese maritime surveillance vessels resulted in a standoff. Should the territorial dispute in the West Philippine Sea escalate or continue, the Republic’s interests in fishing, trade and offshore drilling may be adversely affected.
Exports to China accounted for 12.7% of the Republic’s total exports in 2011 and imports of goods from China accounted for 10.1% of the Republic’s total imports in 2011. In addition, the Republic meets a significant amount of its steel requirements from Chinese imports. Should tensions with China escalate due to the dispute in the West Philippine Sea or other reasons, the volume of trade between the Republic and China may be adversely impacted and the supply of steel available to the Republic may be reduced, which in turn may affect, among other things, infrastructure development in the Republic. The Republic is committed to resolving disputes in the West Philippine Sea through peaceful means and diplomatic solutions, without threat or use of force, and in accordance with international law, specifically the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.
In May 2012 the sudden restrictions imposed by Chinese authorities on Philippine bananas was the result of the ongoing standoff between China and the Philippines over Scarborough Shoal, which is about 200 km from the shores of Masinloc, Zambales province (north of Manila). Chinese traders remained interested in buying Philippine bananas but were helpless because of their government's rules. China accounts for at least 30 percent of the Philippine's market for banana exports. Chinese authorities refused the entry into China of bananas because of an alleged finding that fruits earlier sent by Mindanao banana growers there showed signs of disease found only in coconuts.
Philippine coast guard officials said 07 November 2016 they had resumed patrols off the disputed Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea. Coast guard authorities said that the operation resumed on Saturday in waters around the shoal, about 200 kilometers west of the island of Luzon. The area had effectively been under Chinese control since 2012, when China deployed a large fleet of ships and began keeping Philippine ships away. But Beijing stopped blocking Philippine fishing boats after President Rodrigo Duterte and President Xi Jinping agreed in October 2016 to mend ties. Coast guard officials said they sent 2 vessels, including a patrol ship supplied by Japan, to the waters to see how fishing boats are operating in the area. Philippine government officials said that by restarting the patrols, they do not intend to heighten regional tensions.
President Rodrigo Duterte ordered the military to seize and occupy a group of uninhabited islands in the West Philippine Sea [aka South China Sea]. Duterte said he might go to the Pag-asa Island to raise the Philippine flag to draw attention to the country’s jurisdiction over the disputed island. But Duterte later cancelled a planned visit to an island the Philippines claims in the disputed South China Sea, after Beijing warned him against the visit.
Duterte revealed his plans 06 April 2017 during a visit to a military camp in the western province of Palawan, telling reporters he plans to raise the Philippine flag on "about nine or 10" islands in the hotly contested Spratly Island region. “We have to maintain our jurisdiction over South China Sea,” he added. “We have to fortify, I must build bunkers there or houses and make provisions for habitation,” he said. “I have ordered the Armed Forces to occupy all — these so many islands, I think nine or 10 — lagyan ng structures and the Philippine flag.”
The 37.2-hectare Pag-asa Island, the second largest of the naturally occurring Spratly Islands, lies 480 kilometers west of Puerto Princesa City, Palawan. Although the island is being administered as part of Kalayaan, Palawan, it is also claimed by China, Taiwan, and Vietnam.
Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said 18 March 2017 that the Department was looking to improve the runway in Pag-asa Island, Palawan to make it all weather facility. Lorenzana also said that he was also eyeing to improve the facilities in the island for the benefit of troops and residents living there. He also did not discount the possibility of allowing tourists visit the place as part of government’s long-term goal.
Pag-asa Island had a dilapidated airstrip, a five-bed lying-in clinic, and a small elementary school built for soldiers and residents. Once a strictly military installation, Pag-asa Island was opened to civilian settlement in 2002.
The defense chief’s announcement came more than a week after a Philippine Navy heavy landing craft, the BRP Ivanatan, completed a re-provisioning mission to Pag-asa, the first time that a navy vessel of its size had docked there. Lorenzana said the navy’s docking of the ship at the island could be considered historic, and came at a time when troops there needed fresh supplies and goods. The island where Philippine civilians and military personnel live is a municipality within the Kalayaan chain of islands, which are part of the Spratly Islands.
The ship BRP Lanao del Norte (LT-504) unintentionally ran aground while attempting to dock in 2004. The 2009 imagery showed that the ship was nearly intact and above water. In comparison, the 2015 imagery showed that more than 1/2 of the ship was sunken under water. The Western end of the airstrip has now been eroded by 6 years of waves and storms, which undoubtedly also contributed to the sinking of BRP Lanao del Norte. Additionally, the mid section of the airstrip appeared to have suffered significant flooding and erosion as well, probably making it unusable for landing cargo planes for resupplies.
The 1.6 billion peso (U.S. $31.4 million) infrastructure project, which began in 2017, includes the refurbishment of runway facilities, docking areas, power and desalination plants, and a radio station. But deadly storms and continued tensions in the South China Sea have slowed down the rehabilitation project, officials said. In 2019, Pag-asa was the site of maritime tensions when Chinese fishing boats swarmed the waters around it. Manila has had a presence on the island since the 1970s.
The Philippines inaugurated a beaching ramp on Pag-asa Island on 10 June 2020, with officials describing it as the first of many upgrades. The ramp is a concrete pier that will allow ships to dock on Pag-asa, Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said. Known internationally as Thitu Island, Pag-asa is one of about nine islands and atolls that Manila occupies in the contested region of the Spratly Islands. The island also hosts a small community, a runway in need of repairs, a school and military barracks.
“This is very significant. With the beaching ramp we can bring in more materials, equipment to continuously repair and then later on to maintain our airstrip,” Lorenzana said during a visit to the island to inaugurate the ramp, according to transcripts of his remarks released by his office. “Before this beaching ramp, when you brought in equipment here or anything – food or whatever – you had to anchor about 500 meters away and transfer the goods into a small boat,” he said, describing the old process as “tedious and expensive.”
|Join the GlobalSecurity.org mailing list|