The 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) established the concept of Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), an area in the sea measuring 200 miles (370 kilometers) from a country’s coast. It established special rights on the exploration and use of marine resources, such as energy from any petroleum deposits in the land under the sea. But the EEZ waters themselves are international waters.
Distinct from the EEZ is the concept of territorial waters. In earlier times, territorial waters extended three miles from the coast, but in modern times, territorial water limits were extended to 12 miles (22 kilometers) from the coast. Countries exercise sovereignty over their territorial waters, but not over their EEZ. They have “sovereign rights” to develop resources in the land under the sea within the EEZ.
These two concepts – territorial waters and EEZ – are very much in the news today. Last week, presidential spokesman Salvador Panelo commented there is nothing wrong with Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana’s proposal to seek the help of the United States in monitoring the Philippines’ EEZ, following reports of Chinese vessels passing through without informing Manila.
If they are merely passing through our EEZ, foreign vessels need not inform Manila, as the EEZ are international waters. Panelo said China should have asked permission, or at least informed the Philippines that its survey ships would be passing through our EEZ. Permission is not required under the UJNCLOS, but informing us as a matter of courtesy would have been appropriate and appreciated .
In connection with our right to develop resources in the seabed within our EEZ, we will be exercising that right very soon when we explore for oil in the Reed Bank which is within our EEZ near Palawan, in a joint project with a Chinese oil firm. This will be similar to our natural gas project in Malampaya, also within our EEZ, with the Anglo-Dutch Shell company. In both cases, the Philippines gets 60 percent of the proceeds.
There is so much dissension in the South China Sea today because of conflicting claims by various nations. The Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Brunei have claims to some islands within their EEZ as well as in the clusters of islands in the Paracels and Spratleys in the middle of the SCS. But China is claiming virtually all of the SCS on the basis of a map it produced in 1947 enclosing its claimed territory with a nine-dash line.
The US maintains the SCS is part of international waters and exercises freedom of navigation; its warships thus ignore the China’s claim as they pass through the sea. The small Southeast Asian nations have to deal with the situation as best they can and have thus agreed with China that a Code of Conduct be drawn up help ensure a peaceful settlement of any disputes in the sea.
This is the situation today with regards to the South China Sea. We must assert our sovereignty in our 12-mile territorial sea but we must take care against claiming rights in our200-mile EEZ that are not based on the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.