Prospects and problems of today’s Nat’l Marine Summit

Published October 29, 2019, 12:31 AM

by Charissa Luci-Atienza & Bernie Cahiles-Magkilat

A two-day  National Marine Summit opens today at the Manila Hotel, attended by leaders of government and non-government  organizations concerned with the environment, the maritime industry, and national defense.

The Philippines is an island nation with so many rivers and lakes, gulfs and bays, and interisland seas. Our coastline (22,549 miles) is nearly twice longer than that of the United States (12,383 miles).  Under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), we have a territorial sea extending 12 miles from our shores. We  also  have under UNCLOS a 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), in which we have sovereign right to exploit possible gas and other resources in the land beneath the sea. The previous Aquino administration renamed to West Philippine Sea that part of the South  China Sea covered by our EEZ.

National Security  Adviser Hemogenes Esperon Jr. said the Marine Summit will focus on three concerns – protection of the marine environment, marine scientific research, and a credible defense posture and maritime law enforcement capability.

The Philippines  has  a  solid reputation in marine environment conservation and protection, he said. The summit may push for the  declaration  of more marine protected areas in the country and look into the possibility of connecting our maritime protected areas with those of our neighbors.

The scientists are concerned with wildlife that flourishes in our waters. Scientists from various nations have been exploring the waters and the underwater features of Benham Rise, which we have renamed Philippine Rise, in the Pacific some 160 miles  east of Isabela in Northern Luzon.

In all these activities – fishing, protection of endangered species, the passage of ships of various nations, etc. – it is important that we know our rights and our limitations under international law. Under UNCLOs, our  territorial sea extends 12 miles from shore; beyond that are international waters, open to international navigation, open to international fishermen.

We have a 200-mile EEZ, but our  rights there are only for the exploitation of resources in the seabed. Foreign ships are free to move within our  EEZ; they should, however, inform our government as a matter of courtesy. Vietnamese, Taiwanese, and other Chinese fishermen often come to fish in our EEZ, and they  have a right to do so as these are international waters.

When the National Marine Summit is held starting today at the Manila Hotel, it is important that these internationally established rights under the UNCLOS are recognized and respected.

Where we are likely to fall into a problem in the Marine Summit is that posed by China’s claim of sovereignty over  80 percent of the South China Sea, based on a nine-dash line surrounding the sea. This claim was rejected by the Arbitral  Court in The Hague in 2016, but that decision was rejected by  China and  there is no means of enforcing it.

The National Marine Summit should be able to accomplish a great deal in the areas of environmental protection, scientific research, and exploitation of resources in our country’s many lakes, rivers, bays, and coastal areas. But any defense and law-enforcement stand that the Summit today may try to assert over some islands and waters in the South China Sea will come face to face with China’s claim. That is a matter that may be decided sometime the future by  international diplomacy.