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PH’s problematic protest vs China over Spratlys


While we need to pursue diplomatic offensives to assert PH claim in the disputed region, proper timing is necessary to accomplish not only our short-term tactical goals but also its long-term strategic objectives.

MANILA, Philippines – On April 5, 2011, amid renewed security tensions in the South China Sea, the Permanent Mission of the Republic of the Philippines to the United Nations lodged a formal protest to the UN Division for Ocean Affairs and the Law of the Sea to challenge China’s position in this contested body of waters.

Photo illustration of China's 9-dash map, which was attached to the Philippines' note verbale (image from VERA FILES)

Photo illustration of China's 9-dash map, which was attached to the Philippines' note verbale (image from VERA FILES)

The People’s Republic of China (PRC) responded on April 14, and accused the Philippines of invading Chinese territories in Nansha Island or what Manila calls as the Kalayaan Island Group (KIG).

China regards the whole South China Sea area as integral part of its territory. This so-called territory is contained in its “nine-dotted line” that covers practically all waters that are considered part of the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of other claimants. China has been very vocal in asserting “undisputable” claim in the South China Sea and regards claims of Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam as “invalid” and “illegal”. In fact, there were reports of China declaring the South China Sea as part of its “core interest” on par with Taiwan and Tibet, a new statement that got the ire of the US, Japan, India and Australia.

Taiwan also lays claim on the Itu-Aba Island. Since Southeast Asian countries uphold a One-China policy, Taiwan claim is deemed part of the PRC claim

In the protest letter, the Philippines raised three major points.

First, that it has sovereignty and jurisdiction of the KIG including all its geological features. It regards KIG as an “integral part of the Philippines.”

Second, the Philippines strengthens its claim using the Roman principle of “dominium maris” and the international law principle of “la terre domine la mer,” which means that land dominates the sea.

Under this principle, the Philippines argues that it is exercising sovereignty and jurisdiction over the waters around the KIG or adjacent to each relevant geological features of the Kalayaan Island, which is under the local government control of the Municipality of Kalayaan. The Philippines contends that this position is provided for under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) in which China is also a signatory.

Third, the Philippines regards all relevant waters, seabed and subsoil in KIG as part of Philippine territory being a coastal and archipelagic state. The Philippines states that the Archipelagic Doctrine is recognized and protected by pertinent provisions of UNCLOS.

Power of diplomacy

Apparent from these points is a new diplomatic offensive of the Philippines in the South China Sea. With practically no military muscle to assert its claim, the Philippines has to resort to the convincing power of diplomacy to redeem its honor in the international community of sovereign nations.

Compared with China, which has deployed several modern patrol ships in the South China

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Sea and established a naval base in Hainan to house its nuclear-powered submarines not to mention its construction of its first air craft carrier, the Philippines has no naval power to brag about.

Most of its naval assets are World War II vintage while its few newer assets are used not for territorial defense but for counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism operations. Though the Philippine Navy has recently acquired from the US an Hamilton-Class Cutter to be deployed in the KIG, the ship is vintage 1960s, which is no match to the newly acquired Scorpene Class submarines of Malaysia and the Geppard-Class frigate of Vietnam. In fact, Vietnam already ordered six Kilo-Class submarines from Russia and developing Cam Ranh Bay as its new naval base. Brunei, the smallest country among the claimants, has acquired several modern Offshore Patrol Vessels from Germany to protect its waters.

In order words, diplomacy is the only means left for the Philippines to protect its claims in the KIF. But did the April 5 protest earn for the Philippines a diplomatic advantage?

The Philippines submitted the protest during the lowest moment of Philippines-China diplomatic relations already marred by several controversies: the August 2010 Manila hostage crisis, the execution of suspected Filipino drug traffickers, the ZTE scandal and North-South Rail issue, among others. Submitting the protest during these rough times in bilateral relations is not prudent. It gives a wrong signal to China about Philippine interests in bilateral relations.

Bad timing

The protest was likewise submitted during the launching day of Philippines-American Balikatan Exercises 2011. This opens a lot of speculations on the Americans’ role in setting the directions of Philippines-China relations in the South China Sea. The US already declared that it has national security interests in the South China Sea.

Lastly, the world already knows the long-standing Philippine position on the KIG. This position is not only articulated in domestic and international laws but is already debated like a broken record in many academic journals and policy studies.

While the April 5 protest strongly reaffirms our position on the KIG, it aggravates our worsening ties with China, the fastest growing major power in the world. And it was filed a month before the proposed visit of President Aquino to Beijing, a planned visit that is now on uncertain ground.

There is a saying in international relations that diplomacy is the first line of defense. In the case of the Philippines in the South China Sea disputes, diplomacy is our main line of defense.

While the Philippines needs to pursue diplomatic offensives to assert its claim in the KIG, proper timing is necessary to accomplish not only the country’s short-term tactical goals but also its long-term strategic objectives.

The Philippines, though a security ally of the US, has a long-term strategic interest in maintaining friendly and constructive relations with China being a rapidly emerging super power.

The submission of the Philippine protest on April 5 to the UN during the lowest moment of Philippines-China relations makes the improvement of Philippine diplomatic relations with China not only difficult but also problematic.


(Rommel C. Banlaoi is the Executive Director of Philippine Institute for Peace, Violence and Terrorism Research (PIPVTR) and Head of its Center for Intelligence and National Security Studies (CINSS). He is the author of Security Aspects of Philippines-China Relations published by Rex Book Store International.)



CATEGORY: Commentary, Foreign Affairs, Sectors
  1. ikay aso says:

    Were you paid by the chinese to write this? It’s so one-sided that I thought the author’s name must be a pseudonym of a chinese writer.

  2. I think the author, who happens to be my professor, only wants to say that it was a bad timing to lodge that protest considering that PNOY planning to vist to China and that we have many rough times already with China. What is wrong to have a good relations with China? It is our leverage with the US.

  3. Now we are using the “Yankees” card after kicking out the U.S. Bases.

    Calling our myopic nationalists to form a human barricade in the Spratleys to repel Chinese agression in these reefs.

  4. steve salonga says:

    With all due respect, may I comment on you following statements:

    You said:

    “With practically no military muscle to assert its claim, the Philippines has to resort to the convincing power of diplomacy to redeem its honor in the international community of sovereign nations.”

    I believe it a principle of international law that conflicts among nations should not be settled militarily but by diplomacy and comity among all nations. Your statement implies that diplomacy is the refuge of the weak, which makes a lie of international law and diplomacy. Our national assertions of sovereignty are not some preposterous imaginings of a deranged dictator, but are precisely grounded on international treaties and agreements that China itself has subscribed to as a signatory. Those definitions of territory have long been interpreted on behalf of the lands that line the south China Sea. China knows this and has respected it since it was conceived. There is no apparent reason to go to war, so why believe that the military solution is the primary option and that diplomacy is the wimps option?

    You say:
    “The submission of the Philippine protest on April 5 to the UN during the lowest moment of Philippines-China relations makes the improvement of Philippine diplomatic relations with China not only difficult but also problematic.”

    How is one to relate to China when it is so powerful? Shall we be the groveling mendicant that we are to the USA? Shall we be the obsequious broker that “squeezes” every bit of advantage out of every deal? Isn’t it time that we raised our head with the same dignity that Vietnam or Brunei has demonstrated? Why justify our lack of gunboats by advising subservience? A righteous nation will speak out honestly for its national interest, whether we speak to China, USA or England. Not because we have the might to enforce our right but because we assert our right no matter what. Sorry, this kind of weak-kneed rationalizing is playing into the hands of our neighbors and will not earn us any respect in the community of nations.

  5. J. Froy Bingcang says:

    This is the first time I’m commenting; reading this left me a bitter aftertaste. I admire Newsbreak alot, but I think the organization should select wisely on contributors and put a rigorous selection standard on the contributions it posts, even if the opinion doesn’t agree to Newsbreak’s official stand on an issue and the only objective is to offer plural opinions to readers/subscribers. This piece doesn’t deserve space (I should have been compensated for reading this, really). Btw, that’s quite a pompous name for “think”-tank.

  6. Romel Bagares says:

    what is bad timing is that it was submitted far too late in the day (not to mention that the submissions in the protest are clearly inadequate, which is really the problem with it)

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