‘Misinformation’ called out: Philippines’ claim on Kalayaan islands not 'erased' by arbitral win

âMisinformationâ called out: Philippinesâ claim on Kalayaan islands not 'erased' by arbitral win
This Feb. 13, 2020 satellite image shows the runway repairs on Pag-asa Island, one of the largest features at Spratly Islands in the West Philippine Sea.
CSIS / AMTI via Maxar Technologies

MANILA, Philippines — A maritime expert disputed what he called wildly circulating misinformation that the Philippines lost possession and sovereignty over the Kalayaan Island Group (KIG) because of its arbitral win in the South China Sea. 

The KIG — the northeastern section of the Spratly Islands — is in the West Philippine Sea, or the portion of the South China Sea within the Philippines' exclusive economic zone, and falls under the jurisdiction of Palawan.

But Jay Batongbacal, director of the University of the Philippines Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea, said there is "a claim now circulating wildly" that the Philippines' arbitral win invalidated a Marcos-era decree that laid claim over the islands. 

"Supposedly, the Award has eliminated the Philippines' sovereignty and possession of the KIG," he said in a Facebook post, referring to a claim which he said was boosting the "Chinese misinformation campaign" about the landmark ruling. "This is FALSE." 

"The validity of [Presidential Decree] 1596 was never put in issue in the SCS Arbitration, and the Tribunal did not have any jurisdiction to rule on the validity thereof," he said. "Therefore the Award cannot have any effect on the validity of PD 1596." 

Batongbacal added that PD 1596 is still valid because the Philippines is a civil law country which means its laws remain valid and effective until amended or revoked. 

"Only the legislature, by legislative action, can invalidate and abrogate PD 1596 and extinguish all its effects," he said. "Not the judgment of an international tribunal, which cannot subordinate the sovereignty of the State." 

He noted that the Philippines was already in possession of three of the islands that make up KIG — Pag-asa, Patag and Lawak — years before it formally and publicly announced its claim in 1971, citing effective occupation and control as its basis.

Effective occupation and control, Batongbacal said, "continues up until this day on the islands/rocks of Pag-asa, Patag, Lawak, Kota, Panata, Likas, Parol, and Rizal." 

"PD 1596 is not the source of PH's title to the islands, it is evidence of the exercise of pre-existing sovereignty that flows from sovereign title based on effective occupation and control," he also said. 

"Without pre-existing sovereignty, PD 1596 could not have been issued and implemented." 

The motive behind the misinformation 

Batongbacal went on to list the "purpose of this misinformation" as the following: 

  • to diminish the confidence and resolve of the military, the coast guard, the police maritime group and other agencies in defending and protecting Philippine sovereignty by causing them to question why they should risk life and limb for a claim that supposedly no longer exists

  • to convince government officials that Philippine sovereignty and possession of the KIG has been legally interrupted by its own action of initiating and winning the SCS Arbitration 

  • to cause a kind of panic among policy-makers and decision-makers and thereby make them susceptible to suggestions that, while being ostensibly for the purpose of defending the Philippine claim, will in truth cause them to take precipitate actions that undermine the Philippine legal position

"This is what information warfare is all about: to deceive the enemy into surrendering without a fight," he ended. 

China does not recognize the arbitral ruling that invalidated its expansive claims over the South China Sea, including the West Philippine Sea. It continues to deploy its ships to the West Philippine Sea despite several protests from Manila. 

— Bella Perez-Rubio 

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