Unlike China, which uses the 9-dash line theory of “historical rights” to claim “indisputable sovereignty” over almost the entire South China Sea (SCS), the Philippines has simply followed and complied all these years with the ruling of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) granting the Philippines, a coastal state, an exclusive economic zone (EEZ) of 200 nautical miles of sea from its coastline. What this means is that the country has sovereign or exclusive rights to use and develop resources in and from the area.
But, sadly, what this also means is that China’s 9-dash line claim is eating up a good portion of the country’s EEZ, 80% according to experts, including our own WPS.
As if trumping the country’s sovereignty is not bad enough, affecting the livelihood of many Filipino fisher folks and limiting our access to resources underneath, China is even making us and other neighboring claimant countries more helpless with their awesome capability of making sophisticated artificial islands complete with runways out of existing atolls and reefs right at one’s own backyard.
Yet, China’s leader has the arrogance to say that with their presence in the area now, they will not bully their weak and poor neighbors. Rather, China will continue to seek resolution of the disputes on the basis of respect of historical facts and through discussions and negotiations, according to their leader.
Who is China fooling? Perhaps to those who are willing to kowtow to China’s hegemonic intentions, they will opt for bilateral talks to benefit them economically and, perhaps, militarily. But for those, like us, who wants them to respect UNCLOS, which is to say a resolution through multilateral approach, we will always be at the mercy of their veiled threats and aggressive behavior.
The Philippines has already made a bold and defiant step against China by bringing the country’s sovereignty case for resolution before the Arbitral Tribunal in the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, the Netherlands.
Apparently, the UN-backed arbitral tribunal has unanimously decided that it has the right to hear our case despite China’s utter vehemence of the WPS issue being resolved by arbitration.
The fact that the tribunal has considered the evaluation of the merits of the country’s legal assertion of declaring China’s 9-dash line illegal in the next proceedings, the government officials who presented this maritime sovereignty issue in The Hague hailed the tribunal’s opinion as a victory.
But is it really a victory for us?
For as long as China’s formidable and intimidating presence in the SCS will not disrupt the freedom of navigation and over-flights in the area, China could care less really what the UN-backed tribunal’s initial or final decision would be.
The U.S. can make as many naval patrol operations in the area as they want to, where China is said to have reclaimed approximately 2,000 acres (809 hectares) of land in the Spratly island chain since last year, and is now adding harbors, housing and airstrips, including those found in the WPS, but the fact that China has established impressive structures in the area that may be used for military purposes in the future, no doubt about that, only means that this extension of power and might will be there for good to have control over the rich resources in and underneath the 9-dash line that takes up 85% of the SCS.
It will be at the height of China’s benevolence if it could return to us 80% of the EEZ that has been taken away from us because of the 9-dash line claim. As it is, it will only be wishful thinking on our part.
In the end, everybody will see China having the last laugh because there is just no organization nor a nation in the world today that China fears such that it would give up everything it has started in the SCS for violating maritime laws.
So where does this leave a poor country like the Philippines and the other nations having a stake in the SCS?
I think for better or worse, we just have to start re-understanding the word ‘capitulation’ if we want peace and stability in a place where a fire-breathing dragon is found right at our own backyard.
That is the reality the country is facing with China today in the issue of maritime sovereignty in the WPS.