Commentary South China Sea: Waters of Contention

Occupy Spratlys

Was Duterte’s Occupy Spratlys order a reaction to the decline of the people’s trust in him as shown in the latest survey of Pulse Asia that he had to show that he is no lackey of China and he can stand up to the neighboring economic giant?

The day after Pulse Asia released results of its March 15-20 survey that showed the President’s trust rating drop by seven points and performance rating by five points, he was at the Western Command in Puerto Princesa, Palawan. In an interview with reporters he said: “Coming Independence Day natin, I might, I may go to Pag-asa Island to raise the flag there. Pati iyong ano, basta iyong bakante, na iyong atin na, tirhan na natin, ibig sabihin. Mukhang agawan kasi ito ng isla eh. (Even the unoccupied which is ours, we should put people there. It looks like this is just island grabbing.) And what’s ours now, at least kunin na natin (let’s get it) and make a strong point there that it is ours.”

Map of Spratlys showing features occupied
by claimant countries.From the West Philippine Sea primer of the UP Institute
of Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea.

It sounded like another “jetski to the Spratlys” campaign bravado that was immediately dismissed as a joke after the elections.

Rep. Gary Alejano of the Magdalo Partylist, a former officer of the Philippine Marines, immediately reacted: “It seems that the President is unaware of the issues in the WPS. Ang agawan at pag-okupa ng mga isla ay noong 1970’s pa. The president is 40 years late in his appreciation since scrambling for islands to occupy by claimant countries happened in 1970’s.”

Alejano said “There are no more islands in South China Sea to occupy unless we grab islands from Vietnam and China and run the risk of a shooting war. “

There are more than 50 features in the Spratlys in the South China Sea which spans about 410,000 square kilometers. The area is being claimed wholly by China, Taiwan and Vietnam and partly by the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei.

The “features” are not really islands that can sustain human habitation but rocks, reefs, shoals, cays. Many of the features are what we call lilitaw-lulubog, visible during low tide and underwater during high tide.

The Philippines occupies nine of those features: Lawak , Kota , Likas , Pag-asa, Parola, Panata, Patag, Rizal and Ayungin.

The Philippines used to have control of three more but lost Pugad Island to Vietnam in 1975 (Vietnamese invited Filipinos guarding the islands to a nearby island for a party. When the Filipino soldiers returned, Vietnamese soldiers have already taken over the island); Panganiban or Mischief Reef to China in 1995; and Panatag or Scarborough Shoal also to China in 2012.

China Marine Surveillance vessel near Scarborough Shoal during the 2012 standoff.

China occupies seven features and has effective control of Scarborough Shoal; Malaysia occupies five; Taiwan occupies the biggest island – Itu Aba. Vietnam occupies the most number of features- 22. Only Brunei among the claimants has no occupied feature in Spratlys.

The military later clarified that what the President really meant was to upgrade facilities in the already-occupied areas.

Actually Duterte elaborated on that in his interview. He said, “There’s about nine or ten islands there. We have to fortify. I must build bunker there or houses, and make provisions for habitation.”

Asked about the rotting BRP Sierra Madre in Ayungin Shoal. Duterte said, “Palitan ko ng luxury liner iyon. may mga waiter, pagkain, swimming pool para ang sundalo tataba.(I’ll replace it with a luxury liner with waiters, food, swimming pool so our soldiers will become fat.)”

Now, that’s a joke, we presume.

The Chinese didn’t find Duterte’s plan funny. Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Hua Chunying said they have “noted the report” and reiterated China’s commitment in “defending its territorial sovereignty and maritime rights and interests in the South China Sea, and safeguarding peace and stability there. “

The spokesperson also underscored the improved situation in the South China Sea .” This has not come easily and deserves to be cherished and preserved by all parties,” she said.

The military’s clarification was a relief to foreign affairs officials who are working to finalize the framework for a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea which is expected to be the highlight of the Philippine chairmanship of the Asean meetings this year.

The framework is expected to move forward the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in South China Sea signed by Asean members and China in 2002. A much-violated provision in the DOC states, “The Parties undertake to exercise self-restraint in the conduct of activities that would complicate or escalate disputes and affect peace and stability including, among others, refraining from action of inhabiting on the presently uninhabited islands, reefs, shoals, cays, and other features and to handle their differences in a constructive manner.”