Territorial Dispute Between China and the Philippines
If the ongoing China-Philippines Scarborough Shoal dispute is founded on security and threat, territorial expansion and strategic military advancement, or economic and political maneuvering and not on mutual respect and economic ties, commitment to mutual treaties, and plain RESPECT, then a countdown to an Asian Falklands war is ticking.
China-Philippines Scarborough Shoal Dispute
A territorial dispute has been an old trick of imperialism since the time of greed reigned in the kingdom unknown to man. History of the worlds never told a lie. War of aggression has always a price, and that price of waging war is expensive—too expensive for the Philippines to buy it.
On the verge of the ongoing China-Philippines Scarborough Shoal dispute, where both countries seemed pious thy kingdom come in claiming a “piece of rock”. Now, what is at stake? Three underlying issues: China’s interest; America’s interest; the Philippines’ sovereignty.
Why does America have her unique or strategic intervention in all disputes be it on territory, military, or even on religion and racism?
History provokes that America’s interest to become the sole superpower over terrestrial, fluvial, and aerial domains on Earth, where she can exercise control to the fullest, remains fully calibrated.
America’s interventions in Gulf War, in the Arab world, in Europe, in Latin countries, and of course, in the Philippines (as maybe the only either America’s satrapy or an imperialists’ puppet in the Asian empire) are the least humble indications to America’s character as imperialist.
This America’s “humble character” had brought us either good or bad. Yet evidently advantageous to her interest. If this is so, then America will be the benefactor of China-Philippines Scarborough Shoal dispute backwash.
What China and the Philippines Are Claiming
Scarborough Shoal, a triangular-shaped atoll with a circumference of 46km has already been regarded and claimed as part of the Zhongsha Islands in China since 1935. That was what China is claiming opposite to the Philippines where its claim is based on the international law—the United Nations Convention On the Law of the Sea or UNCLOS.
China has been constantly emphasizing and asserting this fact for longer times than we have known for it. When Scarborough Shoal became the subject of dispute among the claiming parties, China reclaimed it including the other islands in the South China Sea based on its historical ownership.
The Philippines’ Claim
Scarborough Shoal (called Bajo de Masinloc in the Philippines) is located 124 nautical miles west of Zambales. The government of the Philippines claimed it as a part of the Municipality of Masinloc, Zambales province.
Furthermore, the Philippines claimed Scarborough Shoal based on the Philippine sovereignty under the public international law and on the Philippine sovereign rights under UNCLOS.
The Pillars of Both Claims
History recalls that Scarborough Shoal was named after the capsized tea-trade ship, Scarborough. China-Philippines dispute over the Scarborough Shoal started on April 30, 1997, when the Filipino naval ships prevented the Chinese boats from approaching the shoal. This historic event prompted China to express their strongest protest against this Philippines’ attempt.
Meanwhile, the latest scuffle between China and the Philippines on the same subject of dispute erupted on April 10, 2012.
China has been adamant about claiming over Scarborough Shoal even as early as in 1935. In fact, China listed Scarborough Shoal part of the Zhongsha Islands.
Historically, China had protested against the Philippines’ claim of sovereignty over some islands in the South China Sea in 1956 for geographical basis. Ergo, Philippines has made their claims over some islands in the South China Sea based on territorial proximity around the Philippine archipelago.
Considering China had already been “bullied” by the Philippine government based on the latter 1956 claim, it could be possible that this event triggered China to promulgate its 1958 Declaration on the Territorial Sea that recognized the breadth of the territorial sea of China. This declaration covered the Zhongsha islands, where Scarborough Shoal was a part of these islands.
Moreover, the 1992 Law on the Territorial Sea and the Contiguous Zone reaffirmed the sovereignty of China over the Zhongsha islands.
On the other hand, the Philippines now is (over)confident in claiming Scarborough Shoal primarily based on UNCLOS provisions—a public international law, and not on what the Philippine Constitution has specified.
A Look Back to China-Philippines Ratification of UNCLOS
UNCLOS codifies a comprehensive rule of law and order in oceans and seas in the entire globe. Its salient tasks enforce coastal and archipelagic states to exercise sovereignty over their territorial sea, establish an exclusive economic zones or EEZs, subject parties to the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS) in cases of disputes, and among others.
The Philippines signed UNCLOS on December 10, 1982; ratified it on May 8, 1984, with reservations. China, on the other hand, ratified UNCLOS on June 7, 1996, with reservations obviously pertaining to territorial sovereignty and also made clear its opposition to Section 2 of Part XV of UNCLOS with respect to all categories of disputes.
South China Sea Dispute Needs Only Respect
China has sovereignty over Scarborough Shoal based on a historical claim. Its control over this shoal is evident on China’s issued proclamations and constant, firm assertion.
On the contrary, the Philippines has no basis to claim the Scarborough Shoal on the principle of acquiring a territory that no one has claimed (terra nullius), if and only if the Philippines asserts its claim based on a public international law relating modalities of acquisition.
As far as independence is concerned, while the Philippines had gained its [2nd] independence (this time from America) in 1946, China had already claimed Scarborough Shoal and asserted it through a Declaration as early as 1935 claiming it Zhongsha islands (where Scarborough Shoal is a part) when in 1947, the Scarborough Shoal was given a name to Minzhu Jiao.
Ergo, the Philippines cannot suffice its claim based on the principle of terra nullius. It can also be deduced that the Philippines failed to consider historical basis and pertinent historical documents on a territorial claim when drawing out territorial borders. Hence, future conflicts like this can be prevented. I may call such diplomatic initiative, respect.
The 1978 map published by the Philippine National Mapping and Resource Information Authority does not include Scarborough Shoal as part of the Philippine territorial sea.
Moreover, the Philippines has already expressed its claim over some islands in the South China Sea that was limited only to the Kalayaan Islands (Spratly Islands) based on Presidential Decree No. 1596. Ergo, the Philippines’ claim over Scarborough Shoal is virtually inconsistent unless otherwise P.D.No. 1596 was superseded in this premise. While the Philippines had been too willing to resolve the dispute in the international tribunal other than more restraint ways so far, China closed its door for other external interventions.
While the Philippines had been too willing to resolve the dispute in the international tribunal other than more restraint ways so far, China closed its doors for any international intervention. This China’s response should not be undermined, misinterpreted, or misunderstood. For it only shows that China is firm and impossible to give up Scarborough Shoal clearly living this issue by its historic claim. The Philippines should think twice about pursuing any moves beyond diplomacy.
But up to what extent will diplomacy go? Or what will happen if all diplomatic options fail? Will history repeat itself? Is Falklands War in Asia is coming or just another Mischief Reef case?
To circumspect the issue on a historical perspective and on the present international treaty, especially UNCLOS, China-Philippines dispute is unwise, unlikely, and incompetent to settle it down by the interference of UNCLOS provisions, because of these following issues that cannot be set aside:
- While UNCLOS provides a sovereign coastal state a basis for a claim to a 200 nautical miles exclusive economic zone or EEZ to an island, Scarborough Shoal had become part of the historical domain of China very long since the birth of UNCLOS. Ergo, although some islands adjacent or contiguous are within the 200 nautical miles of EEZ in accordance with UNCLOS and thus a coastal state has sovereignty over those islands, Scarborough Shoal should become a class of itself on the basis of giving respect to the long-standing historical claim and the past, early declaration of territorial claims by China.
- China’s interest to reign over Asia and the Pacific cannot also be set aside. So does the Philippines, as a “little sister” of America.
- Both the Philippines and China had signified their reservations upon ratifying UNCLOS. Then, what makes sense in bringing up the issue to the international tribunal and resolving it solely on UNCLOS provisions when both disputing parties-signatories had conditions hostile to UNCLOS provisions on territorial sovereignty and disputes?
Neither applying the full force of the rule of law through UNCLOS nor waging war against each other could be the best option. Rather, the right timing for diplomatic options founded on a mutual relationship could be the last resort.
Meanwhile, the Philippines should come to know that despite America’s allegiance to the Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) and her promises, America, still, would position herself toward achieving her own interest at whatever cost.
It may be contentious that proximity claim must not supersede historical claim, and the latter has no room for accommodation. However it may be, let’s leave it at that. For that is the pain that history teaches us good values such as respect.
If China’s claim over Scarborough Shoal had been known long before the birth of UNCLOS and the other international laws, then why the Philippines still too persistent in claiming over the disputed Scarborough Shoal and when in fact both have expressed reservations that concern the matter about territorial sovereignty already declared and have known for so long?
Did framers of UNCLOS commit such biased, intended shortcoming? It could be one way or the other that doubts cast a black hole to this China-Philippines dispute pointing out to the crucial role of America in the present arena of territorial conflicts in the Asian empire.
America isn’t a subscriber to UNCLOS. Until now, she has never ratified it. Either for diplomacy or for military support to the Philippines, America’s intervention is malignant to China’s common sense. It is dubious to note that America had favored a historical basis of Great Britain over proximity claim of Argentina to the Falkland Islands. But now, her interest is as obvious as what she wants to hide us from seeing China expanding.
Strategically, the best option left for the Philippines is a right timing for any diplomatic moves. Not today, while the iron is still hot; not tomorrow when pride and sovereignty will be at stake. But as of this moment, show respect and listen to a historical claim of the closest neighbor. Doing so is not a form of being bullied. Neither is it a body language of cowardice; nor is it a mechanism of being in the losing face of the battle that we, actually, have never been. Only fools rush in.
(Featured Image: from globalita.com)
- Zou, Keyuan. Law of the Sea in East Asia: Issues and Prospects. Routledge: 2005.
- Philippine Position on Scarborough Shoal and the Waters Within Its Vicinity. Philippine Official Gazette, April 18, 2012.
- 1992 Law of the Peoples Republic of China on Territorial Sea and the Contiguous Zone by lehmanlaw.com
- Presidential Decree No. 1596 by chanrobles.com
- Declarations and Statements by un.org