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Philippine presidents and the West Philippine Sea

AS A MATTER OF FACT - Sara Soliven De Guzman (The Philippine Star) - May 17, 2021 - 12:00am

The Philippines’ commitment to international law and regional stability is challenged by the South China Sea issue. According to a study entitled “Into China’s Rough Seas: Troubled Maritime Institutions in the West Philippine Sea – Implications for Philippine National Security” written by Rhisan Mae E. Morales of Ateneo de Davao University, different administrations of the Philippine government embarked on various measures fundamentally inclined to the principle of its foreign policy that ensures the integrity of its national territory and sovereignty.

However, according to Morales, the initiatives turned out ineffective at the level of implementation because each administration had a different approach to the West Philippine Sea issue and, in general, with China. In the introduction of the study, Morales described how each administration acted on the issue.

It is interesting to note that the Marcos administration was responsible for the establishment of the Pag-asa Island as the Philippines’ northernmost frontier. President Marcos issued Presidential Decree (PD) 1596 that defined the extent of Philippine territory including the Kalayaan Island Group. So, when the Philippines became a signatory to the International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea (ITLOS) in 1981, Marcos issued Executive Order (EO) 738 establishing a Cabinet Committee on the Treaty on the Law of the Sea (CABCOM-LOS). This committee was responsible for the implementation of the treaty at the domestic level, with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs as the coordinating agency.

Since then, according to Morales, other administrations adapted the committee but modified its functions and composition to meet the current maritime issues. President Cory Aquino expanded the structure of the committee from six to twelve. But the study says that the South China Sea was not much of a concern during her time. Executive Order 186 was issued by president Fidel Ramos that changed the name of the committee to Cabinet Committee on Maritime Affairs. The committee became a recommendatory body that proposed practical solutions and policies in the implementation of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and other issues on marine security.

In 1994, the National Marine Policy (NMP) was adopted as an initial effort of the government to draw guidelines for national marine strategy and ocean management. Then, the Mischief Reef incident happened. The Chinese started building military posts in the area. What happened next? President Ramos called for demilitarization in the South China Sea.

During the short-lived term of president Joseph Estrada, he again changed the name of the Cabinet Committee on Maritime Affairs to Cabinet Committee on Maritime and Ocean Affairs. In his first SONA, he included the protection of the territorial security of the region. Estrada called for the support of the United States over the Spratlys, but the US remained neutral to the conflicting claims in the South China Sea. Together with other ASEAN countries who have laid claim in the South China Sea, he called for a peaceful settlement.

Under president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, we adopted the Regional Code of Conduct in the South China Sea. But reports say that the Arroyo administration entered into a Joint Marine Seismic Undertaking (JMSU) with China in 2004. The JMSU allowed China and Vietnam to explore the Philippine-occupied islands in the Spratlys, including the Reed Bank in western Palawan. The joint exploration lasted for three years. China has not provided the Philippines with a clear result of the exploration. What we all know is that China is transforming our fishing grounds into Chinese military posts. Sadly, because of this, the Filipino fishermen have now limited access to the waters claimed by China. I believe that this is the time when the so-called ‘special’ relations with China began.

During the administration of president Benigno Aquino III (P-Noy), the Philippines filed an arbitration case against China over the West Philippine Sea on Jan. 22, 2013. These arbitration proceedings were initiated by the Aquino administration after a standoff between Philippine and Chinese vessels in the disputed Panatag Shoal (Scarborough Shoal) in the West Philippine Sea in April 2012. On Sept. 5, 2012, President Aquino signed Administrative Order No. 29, renaming South China Sea waters within the country’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) to West Philippine Sea. These areas include the Luzon Sea and the waters around, within and adjacent to the Kalayaan Island Group and Bajo de Masinloc, also known as Scarborough Shoal.

According to AO 29, the Philippines exercises “sovereign rights under the principles of international law, including the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), to explore and exploit, conserve and manage the natural resources, whether living or non-living, both renewable and non-renewable, of the seabed, including the subsoil and the adjacent waters, and to conduct other activities for the economic exploitation and exploration of its maritime domain, such as the production of energy from the water, currents and winds.”

Now, what is President Duterte’s claim over the West Philippine Sea? During his campaign for the 2016 elections he said that he would ride the jet ski to plant the Philippine flag on the man-made islands occupied by China. In a CNN Philippines Town Hall meeting last February 2016, he said that he would stop the expansion of China in the West Philippine Sea.

Days before he assumed the presidency in June 2016, he also stated that he would not surrender the country’s rights over the disputed Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea. But something happened along the way. He seemed to have recouped GMA administration’s relations with China. Regained ties for ‘economic’ reasons to the detriment of the Filipinos. How can we ever forget the ZTE-NBN deals during GMA’s time and now the POGO groups given special treatment, not to mention the dominant and aggressive presence of Chinese vessels in our EEZ?

Last week the President said “I, never in my campaign as president, promised the people that I would retake the West Philippine Sea. I did not promise that I would pressure China... I never mentioned about China and the Philippines in my campaign because that was a very serious matter.” Filipinos are getting annoyed, very upset and stupefied by all his contradicting lines.

To add insult to the injury, after Defense Secretary Lorenzana and Foreign Affairs Secretary Locsin said that the Julian Felipe Reef is within our EEZ, the presidential spokesperson Harry Roque countered the claim by saying that Julian Felipe Reef is outside our EEZ. Sanamagan!

This administration is just so full of it. Straighten up your script and acts. Enough of your bravado and innuendos!

WEST PHILIPPINE SEA
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