Manila enforced law, rescued ships in shoal

GOTCHA - Jarius Bondoc - The Philippine Star

“Those who bully the weak are cowards before the strong,” goes a Chinese proverb. Beijing’s communist bullies use military might to expel unarmed Filipinos from their centuries-long Scarborough Shoal fishing grounds. Yet they run away from the strength of the Philippine case at the UN International Tribunal on Law of the Sea.

The bases of the case were presented in a recent lecture, “Bajo de Masinloc (Scarborough Shoal): Less Known Facts vs. Published Fiction.” Author Prof. Jay L. Batongbacal, PhD, is director of the University of the Philippines-Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea. Following is the last of a three-part condensation:

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Actions confirm Manila’s consolidation of jurisdiction over Scarborough Shoal. The American colonial government listed it in the official 1918 Census of the Philippine Islands. Decades later the sovereignty over the shoal directly was tackled by the Commonwealth Government.

On Dec. 6, 1937, Mr. Wayne Coy, Office of the US High Commissioner for the Philippines, specifically asked Capt. Thomas Maher, head of the US Coast and Geodetic Survey, whether Scarborough Shoal had been claimed by any country. Maher replied on Dec. 10, 1937, that there was no information whether any nation, including Britain, had laid claim. His office had no power to decide on sovereignty, he said, but Spanish records existed, particularly the 1800 survey of the Santa Lucia.

Maher wrote: “If this survey would confer title on Spain or be a recognition of sovereignty, or claim for same without protest, the reef would apparently be considered as part of Spanish territory, the transfer of which would be governed by the treaty of Nov. 7, 1900.” He suggested a new survey of the shoal, and installation of navigational light.

Interest in formally claiming the shoal went on in succeeding months. Jorge B. Vargas wrote Coy to inquire about the status of Scarborough. Vargas stated: “The Commonwealth Government may desire to claim title thereto should there be no objection on the part of the United States Government to such action.”

Coy forwarded the letter to the US Dept. of War, which in turn gave it to the Dept. of State. The correspondence between the two offices is revealing. On July 27, 1938, Sec. of State Cordell Hull informed Sec. of War Harry Woodring: “This Department has no information in regard to the ownership of the shoal other than that which appears in the file attached to the letter under reference. While the shoal appears outside the limits of the Philippine archipelago as described in Article III of the American-Spanish Treaty of Paris of Dec. 10, 1898, it would seem that, in the absence of a valid claim by any other government, the shoal should be regarded as included among the islands ceded to the United States by the American-Spanish treaty of Nov. 7, 1900.”

Hull went on: “Accordingly, in the absence of evidence of a superior claim to Scarborough Shoal by any other government, the Department of State would interpose no objection to the proposal of the Commonwealth Government to study the possibility of the shoal as an aid to air and ocean navigation, provided that the Navy Department and the Department of Commerce, which are interested in air and ocean navigation in the Far East, are informed and have expressed no objection to the course of action contemplated by the Commonwealth Government.”

Subsequently, Acting Sec. of the Navy W.R. Furlong wrote Acting Sec. of War Louis Johnson: “It is noted that the Commonwealth Government of the Philippine Islands desires to study the possibilities of this reef, particularly as to its value as an aid to air navigation and with the possibility of later claiming title thereto should there be no objection on the part of the United States Government to such action. The papers accompanying your letter, which are returned herewith, have been carefully considered and this Department has no objection to the course of action contemplated by the Commonwealth Government.”

On Oct. 19, 1938, Secretary of Commerce Paul Frizzell wrote the Secretary of War: “It is noted that the Commonwealth Government of the Philippines desires to study the value of Scarborough Shoal as an aid to air navigation with the possibility of later claiming title thereto. It is further noted that the Secretary of State will interpose no objection to the proposal of the Commonwealth Government, provided the Navy and Commerce departments express no objection. Please be advised that the Civil Aeronautics Authority sees no objection to the proposed action.”

The correspondence not only confirms Philippine Commonwealth jurisdiction, but also later lays the ground for exercise of sovereignty. Throughout the Commonwealth Period, Manila considered Scarborough Shoal under its exclusive sphere of influence, marking it prominently in maps, and continuously exercising maritime jurisdiction. This is seen in the Coast Pilot Guides issued by the US Coast and Geodetic Survey, and in search and rescue operations on the shoal.

With the birth of the Philippine Republic in 1946, Bajo de Masinloc continued to be subject to its power. In 1961 the Philippine Coast and Geodetic Survey sent a hydrographic-topographic team, led by Lt. Commander Antonio P. Ventura. They spent four days mapping and sounding to produce a detailed chart of Bajo de Masinloc and environs. A hut with a tide and current station was installed on the biggest rock.

Two years after, 1963, the local press reported the rescue of the shipwrecked French Arsineo. A commercial and a US Navy vessel brought the crew to Manila. This was only one of many shipwrecks on the shoal. The Philippine Coast and Geodetic Survey was responsible for marking the wrecks on nautical charts. Earlier versions of Chart 4200, the complete map of the archipelago, indicated shipwrecks and navigational lights on the shoal.

The year 1963 also saw a major exercise of absolute sovereignty, when the Philippine Navy discovered a smuggler’s base on the shoal. The smuggler’s base was used for pick-up and drop-off of “blue seal” cigarettes and other contraband. Newspapers published photos of the facility. Navy ships bombarded the wharf twice in the same month. No other government action can express sovereignty so completely and convincingly than this enforced destruction of illegal facilities.

To discourage rebuilding of the smuggler’s base and keep naval presence around the shoal, the Philippines invited a US Naval Operating Area, covering a 20-mile radius around the shoal. This turned Scarborough Shoal into a target and bombing range for the Philippine and US Navies. The world was notified of this fact through the Coast Pilot Guides, issued by the Philippine Coast and Geodetic Survey.

Absolute sovereignty continued to the 1970s and ‘80s. The Philippine Coast and Geodetic Survey and the Navy issued Notices to Mariners, warning passing ships of live fire exercises, including missile practice by the US Navy operating out of Subic Bay.

Conducted peacefully and openly, all these exercises of sovereignty were uninterrupted. No country, including China, protested. Not even to as late as summer of 1997, when the Coast and Geodetic Survey Division of the National Mapping and Resource Information Agency made a GPS survey of the shoal to identify points to be used to create the archipelagic baseline system under the UNCLOS.

(Full text of Dr. Batongbacal’s lecture, with photos and maps, at the Institute for Maritime and Oceanic Affairs website: imoa.ph.)

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Catch Sapol radio show, Saturdays, 8-10 a.m., DWIZ, (882-AM).

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