In the ensuing debates on the overlapping claims over the islets, islands, cays, atolls and sandbars in the South China Sea, as a scholar of Foreign Policy, I have revisited my readings and supplement them with my own analysis as to whose claiming which and to whose legitimacy all these rest in the event of a clash in the future. As we all agreed, the contested islands is a flashpoint for potential conflicts in this side of the world. Experts, from the wide spectrum of national security, foreign policy, security and others are in agreement that should these claims not manoeuvred very well, can result into a full-scale war between the claimants and the “late claimants” to these group of islands. I am re-reading the book of UST Prof. Robert Hsiao Shi-Ching for this analysis and cites mostly in my arguments for this analysis.
In the case of the Philippine’s widespread usage of the Spratlys group of islands, it originated from the name of British Captain Richard Spratly (1806-1866), the captain of the British-flagged whaler, Cyrus South Seaman. It was Captain Richard Spratly who discovered “few islands and islets” in his whaling expedition on March 29, 1843 and his recorded sightings of these islands were published by The Nautical Magazine issue 697, in 1843. His cunning ability to be a published namesake of the islands after his widely applauded publication in The Naval Chronicle sidelined the original discoverer and name-provider, the British Admiral James Horsburgh who agreed that his “Horsburgh’s Storm Island” be named Spratly’s Islands.
So much for the Spratly’s well published beginnings; let us now rediscover which islets and islands belong to the Spratly’s islands. But first, let us study in detail how other claimants call these islands aside from our Kalayaan Island Group (KIG). China, who claimed to be the original nation who has jurisdiction on these islands named it Nansha Gunto while the Japanese call it “Sinnan Gunto (New South Islands), the Vietnamese call it “Truong Sa Islands” (Long Islands). Prior to the KIG coinage, the Philippines call these islands as “Kingdom of Humanity” and “Freedomland”. Archives revealed that “Freedomland” was used by Admiral Tomas Cloma who discovered these islands. The KIG coinage stemmed from the issuance of former President Ferdinand Marcos of PD 1596 creating the 12 Municipality of the Province of Palawan on June 11, 1978. Subsequently, Marcos issued PD 1599 proclaiming Exclusive Economic Zone for the Philippines to include the KIG.
The Nansha Gunto
China, being an old civilization unparalleled in richness and naval might, have claimed these islands in the South China Sea based on several grounds, including historical principles. To them, archaeological finds in the Nanshas revealed that old “Chinese temples and graves as well as cannons” were enough justification for the Chinese presence in the Nanshas. China asserted that they claimed the islands traces back to the Han Dynasty (206 BC to 220 AD) claiming that Mainland China and the Islands has direct, undisturbed ties and links. They also argued that such relationships traced back to as early as the second century as described in the Imperial writings by Wan Zhen in his Nanzhou Yi Wu Zhi (Strange Things of the Southern Provinces) as well as in Fu Nan Zhuan (An account of Fu Nan) written by Kang Tai. These were written during the height of the greatness of the Three Kingdoms period (220-265 BC).
Accordingly, upon such discovery, the Chinese people have navigated the rough seas to visit the Nansha Gunto and inhabit them. Records of these habitation and settlement can be found recorded in Meng Liang Lu (Record of a Day-Dreamer) during the Song Dynasty. It can also be found in Dao Yi Zhi Lui (Brief Accounts of the Islands) of the Yuan Dynasty. Stories and accounts can also be gleaned in the Dong Xi Yang Kao (Studies of the Oceans East and West) and in Shun Feng Xiang Song (Fair Winds for Escort) during the Ming Dynasty and during the Qing Dynasty, these accounts can be read in Zhi Nan Zheng Fa (Compass Directions) and Hai Guo Wen Jian Lu (Records of Things Seen and Heard About the Coastal Regions) and in the Geng Lu Bu (Manuals of Sea Routes).
According to Chinese archaeological researches, Chinese settlements in the islands have already existed even during the time of the Tang Dynasty. According to the book of Dr. Shi-Ching (which is widely used in this analysis), “as early as the 7th Century, the Nansha Islands were under the jurisdiction of the Qiongzhu Administration of Hainan from 618-907 BC.
Kingdom of Humanity
The Philippines’ claim on the KIG is not entirely of all the Nansha Gunto which is claimed by China, historically and other grounds. It only claimed the western section of the Nanshas which is an assortment of “53 islands, islets, reefs, shoals, cays, rocks and atolls with an area of 64,976 sq. Miles”. The KIG is 450 nautical miles away from Manila and 235 nautical miles from Palawan.
Hereunder, comprises the claims of the Philippines to cite the scholarly work of Dr. Shi-Ching.
- Pag-asa (Thitu) – 32 hectare island, 227 nautical miles west of Puerto Princessa;
- Patag (Flat Islands)
- Lawak (Nanshan Island)
- Likas (West York Island)
- Panata (Lankiam cay)
- Kota (Laoita Island)
- Rizal Reef (Commodore Reef)
Interestingly though in the book of Dr. Shi-Ching, when in 1956, Admiral Tomas Cloma discovered only 33 islands, sand cays, sand bars and coral reefs but when the Philippine Coast and Geodetic Survey Office undertook a survey of the islands and issued a new map in 1978, the KIG increased to about 51-60 depending on low tide or high tide estimation.
Our interests in the Nanshas started in 1947 when Foreign Affairs Secretary Carlos P. Garcia (later to become President after President Magsaysay) asked the Allied Forces to place the “New Southern Islands” under the Philippine jurisdiction for reasons of security as Japan is using Itu Aba, as staging point prior to its occupation of the Philippines in the Second World War. This assertion however, according to Dr. Shi-Ching were not pursued as a claim in 1951 by then Foreign Affairs Secretary Carlos P. Romulo during the negotiations for the terms of the San Francisco Peace Treaty.
President Ferdinand Marcos issued PD 1596 on June 11, 1978 to claim these islands for reasons of proximity and thereby constituted the KIG as the 12th Municipality of the Province of Palawan. Subsequently, the municipality was registered with the UN Secretariat on May 14, 1980 and since 1980, local elections were held. Prior to elections, immediately after issuing PD 1596, Marcos issued Proclamation No. 1081 to vest administrative powers and supervision of the KIG on the shoulders of the Secretary of National Defense until elections are held.
Until now, the Philippines lay claims on these islands with proven, undisturbed democratic practices since 1980s.
The paradox of the UNCLOS
The bulwark of our most recent arguments on the Filipino’s claim on the KIG is based on, among many other grounds, the UNCLOS or the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. Historically though, the world’s ocean, including the South China Sea (West Philippine Sea) is governed by the universal doctrine of the Freedom of the Seas. To understand better, how even overlapping claims on the oceans and the seas can affect man’s survival, we need to transport ourselves to the time when Pope Alexander VI, two years after the voyage of discovery of America by Christopher Columbus, met with the representatives of then maritime great superpowers, Spain and Portugal to neatly divide the Atlantic Ocean between them, thus the famous Papal Bull was issued. Since then, issues and concerns over claims and counterclaims of the ownership of the seas by nations near it requires the meeting of the minds to regulate it for humanity’s sake, arguing, I believed that the oceans and the seas are for “common heritage of mankind”.
These concerns, among many others, have resulted into causes, consultations, meetings and high-level meetings and discussion spanning 15 years. The conference convened in 1973 in New York and ended with the signing of the Convention in 1982, nine years after.
Under the UNCLOS, only the Philippines and Indonesia, both claimed to be an Archipelagic state prominently featured a new dimension to international law. According to the UNCLOS, “For those States, the territorial sea is a 12-mile zone extending from a line drawn joining the outermost points of the outermost islands of the group that are in close proximity to each other. The waters between the islands are declared archipelagic waters, where ships of all States enjoy the right of innocent passage. In those waters, States may establish sea lanes and air routes where all ships and aircraft enjoy the right of expeditious and unobstructed passage.”
The most revolutionary feature of the UNCLOS is the 200 Mile EEZ or the Exclusive Economic Zone. Under the EEZ, these greatly benefitted coastal states such as the United States, France, Indonesia, New Zealand, Australia and the Russian Federation. By virtue of the UNCLOS, the Philippines, being a signatory of the Convention enjoys the EEZ, along with China, Malaysia, Brunei, Vietnam and Japan.
How we can move on from the impasse?
The UNCLOS provided for a mechanism wherein conflicting claims over the oceans and seas under the convention can be lodge at the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea and adjudication by the International Court of Justice. This is the most plausible option the Philippines can pursue this peacefully.
Also, in the light of historical claims to the vast Nanshas, including the KIG, we need to bolster it more with historical, cultural, maritime and economic ties which dates to as far as those claimed by even Vietnam and China. If China can attest they owned the Nansha Gunto to as early as the second century, so will we re-establish the ties which dates to as old as second century too, under the proximity doctrines. Perhaps, checking how the Tabon Cave Man of Palawan could have links to the islands?
When I pursued my Masters in Foreign Service from the Lyceum of the Philippines in 2001, I had the chance to met the Chinese Ambassador to the Philippines for a simulation class requirement. I talked to him for 45 minutes and we talked about the claims on the South China Sea. His arguments, at that time were crude and elementary which took me by surprise. He took a map from his office and came back with a map he told me he bought at the National Bookstore. He then told me, “if you said your government owns the Spratlys islands, how come I cannot see them on your map?”. His argument caught me off-guard as I also, until today’s writing, google search for a Philippine map, no inclusion of the KIG is seen in mostly and widely sold Philippine maps, and these maps are being used in elementary and secondary schools. I have opined that if indeed we are serious we this claim as we are espoused we truly are, then by all means, include them in the Philippine map which are commercially sold.
That Philippine map argument is crudely elementary yet meaningful. I have yet to see historical, cultural and maritime, legal as well as economic arguments by the Philippines towards the Spratlys Islands or the KIG apart from those we adhered to on the UNCLOS and the Marcos declarations and proclamations. I say these because had the UNCLOS didn’t bore the Convention in 1982, what legalese arguments can we muster to farther the claims on the KIG vis-a-vis China? Remember, up until today, 162 party-states ratified the UNCLOS at the exclusion of the USA. The Philippines ratified the UNCLOS on May 8, 1984 while Vietnam (July 25, 1994), China (June 7, 1996), Japan (June 20, 1996), Malaysia (October 14, 1996), Brunei Darussalam (November 5, 1996). Thailand being the recent party-state to ratify UNCLOS on May 15, 2011.