Caixin
May 31, 2012 04:01 PM

Philippine, Chinese Analysts on South China Sea Row

(Beijing)–China and the Philippines have been locked in a tense standoff over a small, rocky outcrop in the South China Sea, an area that rival countries have squabbled over for centuries.

Located about 160 kilometers from the Philippines and 800 kilometers from China, Huangyan Island, also known as Scarborough Shoal, became the center of conflict after Philippine authorities tried to arrest Chinese fishermen in the area on grounds of poaching.

Despite diplomatic exchanges and assurances from both sides of a desire to avoid conflict, more ships have been deployed to the area by both governments. China also began to exert economic pressure on the Philippines, tightening control on banana imports and suspending tourism.

Caixin spoke separately to two Chinese news editors and two Filipino international law experts about each country's claims, as well as the series of exchanges that followed.

Zhang Jianjing is managing editor of China Reform, Caixin's monthly magazine featuring extensive commentary and analysis on political and economic issues. Huang Shan is chief of Caixin's international desk.

Attorney Romel Regalado Bagares is executive director of the Manila-based Center for International Law (CenterLaw). Professor Herminio Harry L. Roque Jr. is the director of the Institute of International Legal Studies at the University of the Philippines Law Center, and a member of the governing council of the Asian Society of International Law.

Below are excerpts from their interviews.

Caixin: Why did the conflict escalate in the first place?

Zhang: The Philippines triggered the crisis by deploying warships to harass Chinese fishing boats in Chinese waters. This put the Philippines on the offensive and China on the defensive, in sharp contrast with their global influence. The Philippines has tried to create the impression that it was being bullied by a strong country. It wants to win international sympathy, stake out the moral high ground and gain political leverage. This is a common strategy in international politics.

Bagares: I think it wasn't intentional on the part of the Philippines to send a navy vessel. The report we initially got was that [the BRP Gregorio Del Pilar] was on routine patrol when it chanced upon the Chinese fishermen on the shoal. That was a problem since it was a military vessel that made the interdiction, not a coast guard vessel.

Both countries have vastly differing claims. Can you walk us through them?

Roque: In terms of territorial claims, some things the Philippines holds as proof of effective occupation are the fact that Scarborough served as a target range for Philippine and U.S. naval forces in Subic Bay in Zambales, or that it's been a provisional fishing ground for fishermen in Zambales. Then there are also the maps, including a 1727 map recently found at the British Library, which shows Scarborough as part of the archipelago.

But the thing is, Scarborough, because it's so tiny, doesn't really qualify as an island. The land surface is negligible – it's about 125 square meters during low tide. It's a rock. So what we're really talking about here is the waters, and for this you have to go by the laws applicable to maritime zones, which are governed by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

Bagares: Based on the UNCLOS, there are two reference points for the Philippines' claims, both based on the UNCLOS provisions on maritime delimitation. This covers territorial waters, contiguous zones and exclusive economic zones (EEZ)

The first has to do with the Philippines' EEZ. The EEZ is the 200 nautical mile sea zone over which the coastal state – the state from whose shores this distance is measured – exercises sovereign rights. Only the coastal state can exploit the resources in this zone. This just has to do economic rights, but it is not equivalent to full sovereignty. You don't own the islands.

Scarborough is about 130 nautical miles from the nearest Philippine land mass, so this puts Scarborough firmly within our EEZ.

Second, under the Philippines' 2009 baselines law, Republic Act 9522, Scarborough is considered a regime of islands made part of Philippine territory. In this case, it is a full sovereign claim or a claim ownership over Scarborough Shoal, not just a claim under the EEZ. But from this point of view, what we are still looking at is that if Scarborough is considered as an island, then it will have its own territorial sea, contiguous zone, and 200-nautical mile EEZ.

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