The press reported last week the findings of the Social Weather Stations (SWS) survey that a total of 93 percent of 1,200 respondents in a nationwide survey said it was “very important and “somewhat important” that ”the control of the islands that China currently occupies in the (South China Sea) be given back to the Philippines.”
The South China Sea (SCS) is today at the center of a dispute involving claims and counter-claims among several nations. There is also a lot of misunderstanding on such terms as South China Sea and West Philippine Sea, sovereignty and sovereign rights, territorial waters and exclusive economic zone,
The SCS is the sea bounded by China in the north, Vietnam in the west, Malaysia and Brunei in the south, and the Philippines in the east. China claims 80 percent of the SCS as its own territory with sovereign rights under a 1947 “nine-dash line” map. The Philippines disputed the claim in a case filed with the United Nations Arbitral Court in The Hague in 2013 and the court ruled in 2016 that China’s claim has no legal basis..
Under the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, coastal countries have a territorial sea extending 12 miles from the shore and an Exclusive Economic Zone extending 200 miles. A country has sovereignty over its territorial sea, but only sovereign rights to develop the resources that may be found in the EEZ.
In 2012, then President Benigno S. Aquino III issued Administrative Order 29 naming our EEZ the West Philippine Sea. It is not, as some think, the SCS which is the bigger sea touching the shores of China, Vietnam, and other states.
China does not recognize the UN Arbitral Court decision and insists on its sovereignty inside the nine-dash line. This line loops around the SCS and includes parts of the Philippine EEZ, including Panatag or Scarborough Shoal – which is why in 2016 Chinese and Philippine ships confronted each other at Panatag, but the Philippines ships later withdrew from the site.
In the recent dispute over the ramming of a Philippine fishing vessel at Recto Bank or Reed Bank, this shoal is 85 miles west of Palawan; it is, therefore, within our EEZ but not Philippine territory, Farther to the west of Recto Bank are the Spratly islands. Way up North, 660 miles from Zambales are the Paracels, whose islands are claimed by China and Vietnam.
In the SWS survey, the respondents were asked if they considered it important that islands taken over by China “be given back to the Philippines.” The respondents would naturally want the return of any islands taken by another country. But it is not clear which are these islands that used to be our own and then taken away from us.
Responding to the survey, Sen. Richard Gordon called for the issue to be taken up by the National Security Council, saying, “We must be prepared for whatever happens there.” There is indeed need to be ready but first there is need to clarify all the claims and their basis in international law, to ensure that our claims can stand against those of other claimants.