The Philippines and the West Philippine Sea

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The Philippines and the West Philippine Sea

Manila claims only part of the South China Sea, but the area it does claim is a core national interest.

Contrary to the thinking in certain quarters, the Philippines does not lay claim to the entire South China Sea (SCS), but rather to that smaller area of the SCS off the country’s western seaboard that is well within its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) and continental shelf and is known as the West Philippine Sea (WPS). The Philippine government spelled out this difference when President Benigno Aquino Jr. issued Administrative Order 29 on September 5, 2012, which renamed the maritime areas to the country’s west. The Philippines is an archipelagic, maritime state, which makes the WPS a matter of serious national importance given its strategic location, security implications and resources.

The WPS would include the Kalayaan Island Group (part of the larger Spratlys group of features in the SCS), and Bajo de Masinloc, also locally called the Panatag Shoal and internationally known as Scarborough Shoal. But the Kalayaan Island Group and Bajo de Masinloc are actually distinct and quite distant from one other. Moreover, while the Kalayaan Island Group hosts features that are above water, with some large enough to be considered islands, Bajo de Masinloc is an entirely submerged feature. As such, their maritime entitlements differ, as does the basis for Manila’s claims. The tendency in some media reporting to lump all these features and waters together often leads to confusion and creates the impression of parity in terms of the extent of claims made by Philippines with that of other SCS disputants. Hence, the official clarification was timely.

The WPS is critical for the Philippines for strategic, security and economic reasons, not to mention national patrimony and territorial integrity. The WPS is the source of most of the country’s indigenous oil and gas, with the potential to meet the country’s fuel demand in the next 20 years, while also hosting a wide array of seabed minerals. While other SCS claimants like China, for instance, can boast onshore and offshore producing basins outside the SCS, the Philippines’ present oil and gas production are clustered around offshore northwest Palawan and the Recto (Reed) Bank in the WPS. Seismic studies suggest that these two areas possess the greatest potential for a country long dependent on oil imports. As the Philippines continues to develop its offshore hydrocarbons exploration and development capabilities, while attracting local and foreign investors in harnessing these resources, the WPS promises to figure in the country’s quest for future energy security and self-sufficiency.

This may help to explain why the trilateral Joint Marine Seismic Undertaking (2005-2008) was publicly criticized after news emerged that the coverage area includes 75-80 percent of the Philippines’ western EEZ, including the gas-rich Recto Bank. The notion of sharing scarce finite resources with other states led many to reject the proposed continuation of the deal. It was also said that JMSU gave China a window to claim previously undisputed maritime areas, such as Recto Bank and other waters very close to Palawan.

The WPS is also home to 20% of the country’s fisheries catch. Its rich coral formations serve as spawning grounds that replenish depleted stocks in waters adjacent to the Philippines. It is also a transit area for migratory species. The development of the local commercial fishing industry will, therefore, hinge on a sustainably managed use of these living marine resources in the WPS, which is under threat from poaching and use of illegal and destructive fishing practices. Local fishermen visiting certain parts of the WPS have also been harassed and chased away by armed troops and paramilitary ships of other occupants. The need to develop the country’s naval and maritime law enforcement assets is thus essential, both to protect local fishermen and to conserve the fisheries resources of the WPS for future Filipino generations.

The WPS is also important from a national security standpoint. In fact, during World War II, Japanese invaders used an island in the Spratlys to stage attacks against Philippine positions. The fear of the Kalayaan Island Group falling into the hands of another state thus has echoes of the past. Indeed, as early as 1933, long before the country attained self-rule from the U.S., Filipino leaders had already expressed the importance of incorporating the features of the WPS as an integral and indispensable part of their nation.

The WPS also lies along major Philippine trading channels, and control of these waters by an unfriendly state could cripple the country’s improving economy. To this concern add the close proximity of many foreign-occupied features. Hence, China’s 1995 occupation of Panganiban (Mischief) Reef, its alleged effective occupation of Bajo de Masinloc since last year and recent moves in Ayungin (Second Thomas) Shoal have all been met with concern and even outrage in the Philippines. These developments lend credence to the idea of a creeping westward push by China towards poorly defended Philippine posts. This, in turn, prompts calls for the modernization of the Philippine Navy and the Philippine Air Force to deter further intrusions and occupation of new features and to guard against unfriendly moves by other claimants. The increasing assertiveness of other claimants also pushes the Philippines closer to its mutual defense treaty ally, the U.S., whose forces have been allowed a rotational presence in the country since 1999, eight years after the termination of the U.S. bases agreement.

All of this demonstrates the significance of the WPS for the Philippines. Allegations that Manila is making a mountain out of a molehill should be reconsidered in light of these legitimate interests. Emphasis on adherence to diplomacy and international law and a commitment to maintaining good relations with neighbors have long prevented the Philippines from fortifying and enhancing military facilities in its administered features, but further erosion of its defensive position may encourage a rethink. Moreover, because of the proximity access and potential transformative impact on Philippine economic development of WPS resources, any cooperative undertaking (namely, joint development) with other claimants may need to entail significant concessions to assuage Philippine fears that it is being disadvantaged.

The Philippines had been seeking to align its position in the WPS with international law. In 2009, the country passed its baselines law, wherein the Kalayaan Island Group and Bajo de Masinloc were placed under a “regime of islands” consistent with UNCLOS, signaling that Manila has no interest in drawing EEZs and ECSs for its WPS features, which would excessively expand the country’s maritime entitlements and cause it to overlap with the maritime claims of other SCS disputants. The Philippines is also advocating a rules-based approach that calls for the delineation of areas under dispute from those that are undisputed, to facilitate talks on functional cooperation or joint development in disputed areas. This position had been communicated at regional meetings and summits on the SCS issue. The recent filing of a legal challenge against China’s claims in the WPS can also be understood as resorting to international law to encourage a rival claimant to clarify the extent, nature and bases of its claims.

Lucio Blanco Pitlo III is an MA Asian Studies student from the University of the Philippines Asian Center specializing in maritime security issues and Philippine foreign policy. The views expressed here are the author’s own.