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West Philippine Sea: What’s in a name?

By ROMMEL BANLAOI

It’s any empty label devoid of any legal meaning

To assert its sovereignty over some body of waters in the South China Sea, the Philippine government has started to use “West Philippine Sea” to describe a maritime area that is deemed to be an integral part of Philippine maritime territory.

Philippine Maritime Zones under the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, or UNCLOS (click on image to enlarge)

Presidential spokesman Edwin Lacierda announced, “All the other nations call the South China Sea based on how they perceive it. Vietnam calls it East Sea so it is but natural for us to call it West Philippine Sea.”

The Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) is the main government agency championing the use of West Philippine Sea in its official communication. But the Department of National Defense (DND) has, in fact, been practically using this term for many years already through the Palawan-based Western Command (Wescom) of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) in charge of protecting the Kalayaan Group of Islands (KIG).

In weather reporting, the Department of Science and Technology (DOST) has instructed the Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration (PAGASA) to officially use West Philippine Sea in the monitoring, forecasting and warning of tropical situation in the area.

What’s the coverage of West Philippine Sea? What’s in it for the Philippines? What’s in a name?

The whole of South China Sea covers around 3.56 million square kilometers of waters consisting of more than 250 disputed land features in the form of islands, islets, reefs, shoals, atolls and rock formations.

While China claims the whole South China Sea area (with Taiwan having identical claims), other claimants such as Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippine and Vietnam only claim part of it. The part being claimed by the Philippines is only the KIG that belongs to what the Philippine government calls West Philippine Sea.

Unclear laws

Existing Philippine laws, however, remain unclear on the maritime area covered by the so-called West Philippine Sea.

The 1987 Philippine Constitution provides a general statement on the extent of Philippine territories. But the specific coverage of Philippine territories has not been clearly defined by existing laws.

Republic Act 9522, otherwise known as the Philippine Archipelagic Baselines Law, which was passed in March 2009, specifies the extent of Philippine baselines to make it compliant to the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

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The enactment of RA 9522 is considered essential for the Philippines to establish its maritime boundaries vis a vis neighboring coastal states.

From these baselines, the Philippines can draw its maritime zones under UNCLOS such as the archipelagic or internal water of 572,307 square kilometers, 12 nautical miles (NM) of territorial sea locally known as municipal waters, 24 NM of contiguous zones, 200 NM of Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), and 200 NM of juridical continental shelf.

However, RA 9522 is controversial, highly contested and even viewed by others as awfully unconstitutional for having deliberately excluded the KIG in the archipelagic baseline.

RA 9522 regards the KIG as part of the “regime of islands” of the Philippines, which requires a separate legal cover.

Moreover, RA 9522 has not yet fully defined Philippine maritime zones including the coverage of West Philippine Sea, which China regards as part of its “internal waters.”

So which part of the Philippine maritime zone is the West Philippine Sea then? Is it part Philippine territorial sea, contiguous zone, or EEZ?

If the KIG is a “regime of islands” that is entitled to have its maritime zones, will the West Philippine Sea cover the maritime zones of KIG?

To define the extent of Philippine maritime zone, there are pending bills in the Philippine Senate and the House of Representatives called the “The Philippine Maritime Zone” bills. There are two versions in the Senate: the Senate Bill 2737 and the Senate Bill 2723. There is only one version in the House called HB 4185.

All these bills aim to specify the extent of Philippine internal waters, territorial sea, contiguous zone, EEZ and continental shelf in accordance with UNCLOS.

All these versions, however, have no specific provision on the extent of West Philippine Sea.

Moreover, all maritime zone bills in the Philippine Congress are still being deliberated and have not been passed into laws that can provide juridical meaning to West Philippine Sea.

No basis

In short, the use of the term West Philippine Sea still has no basis under Philippine laws.

It has yet to receive international recognition. Even Deputy Presidential spokesperson Abigail Valte candidly admits that the Office of the President (OP) has not issued any official directive, to date, on the use of West Philippine Sea.

While the use of West Philippine Sea expresses the sovereign prerogative of the Philippines to describe its maritime territory and symbolizes the strategic intention of the Philippines to bolster its ownership of the KIG and its surrounding waters, it is still utterly devoid of legal meaning.

Unless we pass a Philippine maritime zone law that can describe the extent of West Philippine Sea pursuant to UNCLOS and applicable international laws, the term West Philippine Sea will remain an empty label that could not withstand the harsh reality of international politics.—Newsbreak

(The author is the Executive Director of the Philippine Institute for Peace, Violence and Terrorism Research and author of the book, Philippine Security in the Age of Terror published in 2010 by CRC Press/Taylor and Francis, New York City.)

CATEGORY: Defense & Security, Foreign Affairs
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  1. David Lee says:

    Why is there a need to call this area West Philippine Sea when it is internationally recognized as South China Sea? I think Vietnam and the Philippines are just too desperate to claim waters that are not theirs. South China Sea belongs to China. Period.

  2. Manny Gonzalez says:

    To those who made the change from South China Sea to “WEST PHILIPPINE SEA”. DID YOU EVEN THINK FOR A MOMENT THAT WHAT YOU JUST DID CHANGED COMPLETELY EVERYTHING THAT IS BEING TAUGHT TO OUR KIDS IN SCHOOL? AGAIN, WITH THIS MOVE, IT WILL ADD MORE ERRORS TO OUR TEXTBOOKS. SMART MOVE AS*&)(%$#ES!!!

  3. South China Sea belongs to China? Earlier oceanographer for lack of better terms just name it south china sea. Even that as a name, does not make the entire sea property of China. The sea is beyond the commerce of man. it is not part of a property you can put a title to. The UNCLOS defines 12 nautical miles from the baseline of any sovereign nation as the extent of her territory. Most of the Spratleys are within the 12 NM of RP, and is beyond 500 NM from China.

  4. David Lee says:

    JCC, whoever you are, you should know that China has historic right to South China Sea based on our ancient map. You only claim it in the 1950′s through a certain Thomas Cloma. China’s claim to the South China Sea is guaranteed by international law including UNCLOS. Nansha is part of China’s internal lake.

  5. ancient map? where is that map? is china not bound by the UN laws on the seas, UNCLOS – that territorial claims should be within the 200 nautical miles from the baseline, in case of overlap, nations should sit down and trace their differences. China as Aquino said is about 576 NM from Spratleys. Besides, a sea is beyond the commerce of man beyond the 200 NM.

    http://www.philstar.com/Article.aspx?articleId=696262&publicationSubCategoryId=63&newsalert

  6. david lee, you are obviously is a chinese. cannot fault your symphaty over your chinese brothers.

  7. David Lee says:

    JCC, obviously you are a Filipino and I cannot also fault your sympathy over your Filipino brothers. Remember, the Sultan of Sulu paid tribute to China to recognize China’s authority in the area. The Sultanate of Sulu was the earliest political authority in a group of islands now called the Philippines. The present Republic of the Philippines is just a new comer. Now, what happened to Sulu that you colonized? You Filipinos now call the Sulu Archipelago the haven of terrorists! The Sultanate of Sulu used to respect the authority and power of China in Asia. China is just asking for a respect that she deserves.

  8. David Lee says:

    By the way, I wonder why Professor Rommel Banlaoi is not responding to this exchange. Why he claims to be a China watcher, I think he is more an asset of the Americans!

  9. richard Delos Reyes says:

    David Lee, with due respect to you, can we stop this “labelling” like pro-China or pro-US and concentrate on the issue at hand. If you call it South China Sea, we respect your position. But also respect our position to call it West Philippine Sea. I think the Philippine government is not claiming the whole of South China Sea. We are only claiming the area we call West Philippine Sea, which I think is the crux of Professor Banlaoi’s article.

  10. Rvl Gimenez says:

    It amounts to nothing more than a slogan which is not a surprise, it being another brilliant idea of this administration.

  11. richard Delos Reyes says:

    Indeed, this government is fond of sloganeering! The naming of West Philippine Sea may have symbolic value but we need to substantiate the name with appropriate laws. I think Professor Banlaoi is right in urging the government to pass a maritime zone bill. Sir, if you need to lobby for the passing of that bill, count me in!

  12. Rvl Gimenez says:

    Hmmm…There’s something about ancient maps used to support territorial claims. Dunno if you’ve heard this but there’s a rumor that France and other vast parts of Europe that used to be Gaul is being claimed by Romans based on some ancient maps of the Roman Empire. ;-)

  13. chinese arrogance that was seen early by the Japanese in 1937 which explains the raped of Nanjing.

  14. i think he was not about to dignify your arrogance with his reply.

  15. just show me your ancient maps! do you know that you cannot put a title to the wide expanse of the sea even if you happen to call it south china sea? even in international law the sea is beyond the commerce of man unless those are integral waters and within the nautical miles established by UNCLOS. Spratleys are way beyond the nautical miles from your Chinese baseline. Just argue your point if you have any short of self-rightheous arrogance!

  16. Rvl Gimenez says:

    I don’t know what happened to the parentheses I typed to enclose the phrase, “…and other vast parts of Europe that used to be Gaul..” A couple of deserters?!

  17. Larry Ho says:

    Whether you call it West Philippine Sea,South China Sea or East Sea, the fact remains that the area is contested that needs to be resolved peacefully. I have seen the author lecturing several times in Singapore and I do not think he is pro-US or pro-PRC. He is a serious scholar trying to make a difference and the Philippines must be proud of him. I admire all his provocative writings! Your president must consider him to work for the government to improve policy. Other countries, like my country Singapore, are benefiting from his brains.

  18. Richard Petterson says:

    The use of the term “South China Sea” is for navigational purpose, a point of reference to guide mariners and shippers. It does not connote any form of ownership. As a student of international law based here in Hawaii (yes, I am an American but it does mean that I am anti-China), UNCLOS provides provision for the peaceful settlement of disputes over maritime areas. If China and the Philippines cannot resolve the issue peacefully by themselves, they can present it to UNCLOS body in charge of settling this kind of maritime disputes. The US remains committed to promote the freedom of navigation in the South China Sea or West Philippine Sea. I think the US will become involved if the freedom of navigation in the area is disturbed. May I know if the author is the same Rommel Banlaoi who attended the Asia Pacific Center for Security Studies here in Hawaii. I met him several years ago here and he was a very passionate scholar. If I am not mistaken, he works at the Philippine defense ministry as professor at Philippine National Defense University. Based on his article here, I think he is the same person.

  19. i am a filipino-chinese but i think for china to claim the entire disputed sea is absurd. ancient maps serve their historical purpose but nothing to lay claim for ownership of a particular area. lest, let us follow the most ancient map of all and let it be who owns it own everything. needless to say, philippines never intend to claim the entire disputed sea. what we are only asking is what is rightfully ours based on UNCLOS. if china has no other evidence to prove its claim other than the mere ancient map or the nomenclature of the territory, then clearly they are just using their military might to mess around with the rightful owners of the area. let it be ours – the kalayaan group of islands.

    and oh, yes, i also agree that this government is nothing but slogans and propaganda, nothing substantial, nothing concrete! tsk. shame shame.

  20. Jesus Mary Hao says:

    Wrong timing ang pagpapalit ng pangalan ng katubigan na iyan. Maling-mali talaga.

  21. JUGHEAd says:

    And the Indian Ocean belongs to India and the Gulf of Mexico belongs to Mexico???…HAHAHAHA…

  22. Johnny Lin says:

    I agree with the writer that putting a new name without international legal basis is empty rhetoric. All expressed opinions or claims are therefore correct in a way. I am not Filipino-Chinese but a native Filipino changed into a Filipino-Moro, i.e. moro-moro by the absurd ideas of the technocrats of PNoy. Jcc, Rvl, good reading your sage ideas again budddies! Smile.

  23. johnny, thought for a while that Lin has something to do with Lin Piao! or Shao Lin..
    :)

  24. You must be out of your mind. Within 200 nautical miles from the Philippine shores is the absolute domain of every country to delineate its territorial property or limit. The entire South China Sea cannot be owned by Communist China. Tell me who owns the Pacific Ocean, Indian Ocean, the Sea of Japan. Mr. President, why not throw out all illegal Chinese from the Philippines?

  25. Johnny Lin says:

    Jcc, it is a western and chinese twist on Juan Tamad, johnny rin(lin). He he he!

  26. Rvl Gimenez says:

    Hello, Johnny! :-)

  27. Warren Concepcion says:

    That is not a good logic sir. haha

  28. juanamboy@yahoo.com says:

    CHINA IS A PROGRESSIVE COUNTRY. ITS NAVAL FORCES, ITS AIR FORCE, ITS ARMY, ITS ENERGY AND ELECTRICITY PROGRAMS, IT SPACE PROGRAM, ITS MEDICAL AND HEALTH SERVICES, ITS EDUCATION, ITS INDUSTRY, ITS COMMERCE, ITS BANKING, ITS COMMUNICATIONS, ITS GOVERNMENT RECORDS AND SERVICES, INSIDE AND OUTSIDE CHINA ARE COMPUTER DEPENDENTS. AND GIVEN OUR COMPUTER EXPERTS (HACKERS, CREATORS OF COMPUTER VIRUS), IN A WAR WITH PINAS CHINA WILL CRASH WITHOUT THE AFP FIRING A SHOT. ALL THAT PINAS NEED IN A CYBER OR INTERNET WAR IS JUST ONE GODDAM HACKER OR VIRUS CREATOR. THAT IDEA IS NOT IMPOSSIBLE. I’M SERIOUS, NO KIDDING.

  29. juanamboy@yahoo.com says:

    David Lee CITES UNCLOS AS AMONG THE BASIS OF CHINA’s SUPPOSED CLAIM OVER THE ENTIRE SOUTH CHINA SEA. David Lee WRONG: CHINA DOESN’T CLAIM ALL OF THE SOUTH CHINA SEA – ONLY SOME PORTIONS OF IT; AND THE UNCLOS DOESN’T ACTUALLY SUPPORT CHINA’s CLAIM – ON THE CONTRARY, UNCLOS REFUTES CHINA’s POSITION.

    BAKA DI PA NABASA NI David Lee UNCLOS OR AT LEAST NAKAKITA NG MAPS OF CHINA AND PINAS THAT ARE BASED ON UNCLOS.

  30. Rommel Banlaoi says:

    I thank all those who commented! But I think the frequent use of West Philippine Sea will eventually acquire international recognition based on customary practice.

  31. Philippine Seas says:

    That is not an a problem or error, names of territories often change. Like in any country there are changes like the names of new regions, cities and municipalities. Even in global scale there are new countries like south sudan, north sudan and macedonia.

  32. Philippine Seas says:

    What historic right? Its clear you did not study history, china policy was to keep away from the sea, Chinese during emperor where not allowed to build large ships, and during communist chairman Mao it was forbidden to go to sea.

  33. Philippine Seas says:

    dont worry amboy, china cannot afford a war. it will not come to that. china is only recently been trying aggressively to expansion its influence to test its power. but they will fail

  34. Rommel Banlaoi says:

    David Lee, I think it is counter-productive to use label like Pro-US or Pro-China because it is a given that all sovereign nations have their own ethnocentric bias. What we have to discuss is how to resolve this complex conflict peacefully by suggesting concrete measures that will make China and the Philippines cooperate rather than compete in the Spratlys. I have deep admiration of Chinese civilization that is considered one of the oldest in the world. But I also admire democratic pluralism in the US.

  35. Rosauro Feliciano says:

    What is wrong about naming an area near or we may say within our country’s territory? The Persian Gulf is known by its name since time immemorial; however, in the mid eighties it is renamed Arabian Gulf and no nation objected. Now who wants to rename the Philippine Sea to West Guam Sea? Perhaps the American will gladly do it if indeed the area is known to have huge deposit of deuterium, the fuel of the future. We are indeed lucky that Australia can not rename the Philippine deep as Australian deep. He he he .

  36. Rommel Banlaoi says:

    There is nothing wrong about the naming. As my piece asserts, calling the South China Sea as West Philippine Sea is our sovereign prerogative. But we need to back it up with law so the name will acquire domestic and international recognition. Otherwise, it will just be an empty label.

  37. Bi Aquino says:

    I agree with the Chinese who insist that the U.S. should not interfere with the negotiations over the Spratlys. If there is any nation that SHOULD NOT be meddling in our regional arguments, it should be the U.S. I don’t trust the U.N. either. It seems that whatever regional disputes that the U.S. or the U.N. meddle in almost always turn to war (the Middle East for example). The sea is the Almighty’s gift to all men–and Southeast Asian nations are spiritual and civilized enough to respect each others’ rights to harvest and share the sea’s resources, while safeguarding the same resources from over-exploitation (making sure it will be still available to our grandchildren’s children). I may be naive, but that doesn’t change the fact that there are much more Chinese, Filipinos, Vietnamese and other Asians who are against war or acts of aggression, than there are those who advocate for it.

  38. And the RED SEA sea belongs to the REDS…the Rome can claim also that the whole Roman catholic around the world are their citizens? Because China Sea belongs to China?????

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