The Philippines is involved in a number of disputes over territories in lands around the South China Sea (SCS). At the center of our dispute with China is its claim that it owns the entire territory covered by a nine-dash line looping down rom China, around the South China Sea, up the western coast of the Philippines, then sweeping northeast to include Taiwan.
We have another dispute with another country, Malaysia, over another territory in the South China Sea, in the big island of Borneo south of Palawan. At the northern tip of Borneo Island is Sabah, part of the Sultanate of Sulu.
The Sultanate of Sulu dates back to 1405 when it was founded by Sultan Sharif ul-Hashim who lived in Buansa, Sulu. At its peak, the sultanate ruled over the islands bordering the western peninsula of Mindanao in the east to Palawan, down to the northeastern side of Borneo.
In 1878, the Sultanate leased or ceded – depending on the translation of the agreement from the original Malay written in Jawi script – Sabah to the British Syndicate of Alfred Dent and Baron Von Overbeck, for an annual payment of 5,000 Malaysian dollars.
In 1885, the Sulu Sultanate came under the control of Spain in a treaty signed by Great Britain, Germany, and Spain. The Philippines, in turn, was ceded by Spain to the US in 1898 and it became independent in 1946. In 1962, the Philippine government under President Diosdado Macapagal officially recognized the Sultanate of Sulu.
On the other side of the South China Sea, 11 states in the Malayan peninsula formed a British crown colony known as the Malaya Union, replaced in 1948 by the Federation of Malaya. In 1957, the federation became independent of British rule and in 1965, it federated with Sarawak and North Borneo – which included Sabah.
This, in brief, traces the Philippine legal claim to Sabah. It claims Sabah remains part of the Sulu Sultanate, which is recognized by the Philippines. Malaysia’s claim is based principally on the 1878 agreement which, it claims, ceded — not merely leased — Sabah to the British Syndicate, ultimately becoming part of today’s Malaysia.
The Philippines is claiming sovereignty over Sabah but Malaysia, in a note verbale to the United Nations last August 27, stated, ”Modern international law does not recognize the survival of a right to sovereignty based solely on historic title.”
This is one more twist in the convoluted dispute between the Philippines and Malaysia, two close allies in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). We hope they will be able to come to some agreement – above any legal disputation — on the matter of Sabah, as we also hope that we will similarly find agreement in our other disputes in the South China Sea with China and some other nations.