THE clashing claims of the Philippines and China in the South China Sea, particularly in the 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of the Philippines which we have renamed West Philippine Sea, continues to dominate public discussions.
In his State of the Nation Address (SONA) last Monday, President Duterte reiterated that he has an agreement with China President Xi Jinping allowing Filipinos and Chinese to fish in the disputed waters. He cited the ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague allowing fishermen of various nations to fish at Panatag which is within our EEZ, as it is a traditional fishing ground.
“The Vietnamese, the Taiwanese, Chinese, Japanese, even Koreans, and Filipinos, Malaysians, and Indonesians – they can also fish because they have always been there,” Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said after critics questioned the President’s verbal agreement with China, insisting that only Filipinos should be allowed to fish in the Philippine EEZ.
Many critics have suggested that the Philippines take a cue from Vietnam’s tough approach in dealing with China. In 1974, the South Vietnamese navy clashed with Chinese naval forces in the Paracels for control of one area, resulting in one Vietnamese warship sunk, three damaged, 53 Vietnamese soldiers killed, and 48 taken prisoner. In 1988, the Socialist Republic of Vietnam navy clashed with Chinese forces in the Spratleys and suffered 64 killed, 11 wounded, 9 captured, two transporters sunk, and one landing craft destroyed.
In recent years, Vietnam has been more subdued. In 2017, Petro Vietnam and the Vietnamese government engaged the Spanish company Repsol in oil exploration and test drilling in disputed waters. China warned Vietnam it would take action to stop the drilling. Vietnam was later reported to have scrapped the project.
The problem arises from the fact that the two nations have conflicting claims in the South China Sea. Vietnam, like all other coastal states in the region, has a 12-mile territorial sea plus a 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zone, as provided by the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). But China does not recognize the UNCLOS; it claims instead sovereignty over 80 percent of the South China Sea, based on a nine-dash-line map it produced in 1948.
China’s foreign ministry has stated that China’s position on the South China Sea is “clear and consistent…. China resolutely safeguards its sovereignty and maritime rights.” Any dispute with another country may be settled via negotiations and consultations, it said.
President Duterte has chosen to negotiate rather than fight like Vietnam once did. Vietnam has since joined the other Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in agreeing to the drawing up of a Code of Conduct to guide the various nations surrounding the South China Sea, with the goal of preventing violent confrontations and settling disputes instead through consultations and diplomacy.
The Philippines and China will start later this year an oil exploration and development project in the Calamian area west of Palawan, with a 60-40 sharing agreement in favor of the Philippines. This is part of the win-win strategy that the Philippines has chosen in its dealings with China as they move to develop Asia’s natural resources that have long been exploited by outside nations.