CHIEF Justice Antonio Carpio has long been critical of the Philippines’ stance on its claim to islands in the South China Sea. After President Duterte’s State-of-the-Nation Address (SoNA) last Monday, however, the chief justice came forward to welcome the President’s pronouncement that the Philippines will not waver in defending its interests in the SCS, particularly in that part close to our shores that we have renamed the West Philippine Sea (WPS).
It was former President Benigno S. Aquino III who issued Administrative Order No. 29 on Sept. 5, 2012, renaming the waters west of Zambales and Palawan within the baselines of the Philippine archipelago under the Baselines Law, RA 9522, and within the 370-kilometer Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). This is not Philippine territory but we have sovereign right to develop and use its resources – its waters, the seabed and natural resources beneath the sea, and the production of energy from the water currents and winds.
Part of the area west of southern Palawan is also claimed by Malaysia but the biggest claim is made by China which says 80 percent of the waters between the Asian mainland and the Philippines, as defined by a nine-dash line on its map, is its sovereign territory. After a stand-off between Philippine and Chinese vessels at Panatag or Scarborough Shoal west of Zambales, well within the Philippines’ EEZ, the Philippines on Jan. 22, 2013, raised the issue to the UN Arbitral Court in The Hague, which ruled on July 12, 2016, against China’s claim of sovereignty. But China never recognized the ruling and it remains unenforced to this day.
From the beginning of his administration in 2016, President Duterte opted for a policy of cooperation, rather than confrontation, with China. The policy has paid off with considerable economic benefits, including Chinese grants and low-interest loans. But many critics, including Justice Carpio, warned that Philippine inaction and silence on the matter might one day be construed as Philippine acquiescence, leading to the loss of all we won in the Arbitral Court.
Last Monday, in his SoNA, President Duterte reiterated the Philippine position on this issue. He said the Philippines will not waver in defending its interests in the West Philippine Sea despite its strengthened ties with China.
“That is the correct position. We should never give up our rights there,” Justice Carpio said. “We can continue to trade with China, while we continue to defend our sovereign rights.”
With the President’s forthright declaration in his SoNA, no one can now say we are acquiescing to China’s claim to our islands in the West Philippine Sea. We simply choose to push our claim through diplomatic channels, including our joint efforts with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to draw up with China a Code of Conduct for the sea designed to avoid confrontation that could quickly turn into a shooting war.
There are some among us who want the President to take more direct action in the West Philippine Sea. We are glad that Chief Justice Carpio acknowledges and welcomes the President’s forthright declaration in the SoNA that we stand by these rights. We may not be able to do much about our claim at this time but we will keep trying through diplomatic and other friendly means until, at some in the future, we will finally achieve our goals.