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VERA FILES FACT CHECK: Can the Philippines sell its islands to China?

Can the Philippines sell its islands to China?

Apr 17, 2017

VERA Files


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In a press conference on April 10 before visiting several Middle Eastern countries, President Rodrigo Duterte explained his earlier directive to the military to “occupy nine or 10” features in the Kalayaan Island Group (KIG) in Palawan.


Responding to China’s concern about his orders, Duterte brought up the possibility of selling the contested islands and reefs when the country is wealthy enough.

“We do not mean harm to China. We are friends, as a matter of fact. Maybe when we get rich, very rich, I can sell the land to you for—inyo na (it’s yours) when the spectacle of a war is gone and nothing is dangerous to the Philippines.”

(Source: People’s Television, April 10, 2017, watch from 11:18-11:38)

Presidential spokesperson Ernesto Abella said Duterte’s statement was made in a “lighthearted moment, meant to underline our friendship with China.”


Lighthearted or not, can the president sell the islands and reefs at the Kalayaan Island Group to China or any other country?


One, most of the islands and reefs at the KIG are non-alienable public domain lands and natural resources, therefore not subject to private ownership.

Two, even granting that they are alienable and disposable, the Constitution prohibits foreigners from owning lands in the Philippines. Only individual Filipino citizens can own Philippine lands, not a foreign country.

The provisions on national economy and patrimony in Article XII, Section 2 says:

All lands of the public domain, waters, minerals, coals, petroleum and other mineral oils, all forces of potential energy, fisheries, forests or timber, wildlife, flora and fauna and other natural resources are owned by the State. With the exception of agricultural lands, all other natural resources shall not be alienated.

Several features in the Kalayaan Island Group have been under Philippine jurisdiction since 1978.

Most of the features are not islands which humans can inhabit, but rocks, reefs, shoals and cays. The Philippines occupies nine of these geographic features. (See COMMENTARY: Occupy Spratlys)

Map of the Philippines, showing the location of the Kalayaan Island Group. (Photo courtesy of the National Mapping and Resource Authority)

There are two kinds of public lands: one is the non-alienable land and the other is the alienable and disposable land.

Non-alienable lands which include timber or forest lands, mineral lands, and national parks cannot be the subject of private ownership; they belong to the state. Alienable and disposable public lands can be titled once they are reclassified by the state. Under the Constitution, only agricultural lands, which are classified further according to its use, can be transferred.

The Constitution reserves the use and enjoyment of land and all other natural resources in the Philippines exclusively to Filipino citizens. Section 7 of the same article says, “Save in cases of hereditary succession, no private lands shall be transferred or conveyed except to individuals, corporations, or associations qualified to acquire or hold lands of the public domain.”

There are strict exceptions to when a foreigner can be allowed to own land in the country:

  • The land was acquired before the 1935 Constitution, when foreigners could still buy lands in their names
  • It was inherited by a foreigner who is a legal or natural heir
  • The land was bought by a former natural-born Filipino citizen subject to the limitations prescribed in the Foreign Investments Act
  • The land belongs to a Filipino married to a foreigner but who retained his or her Filipino citizenship

    Several features in the KIG have been occupied by the Philippine military since 1968. These became Kalayaan municipality in 1978, through a decree issued by President Ferdinand Marcos. The decree came after decades of interest in the area that began as early as 1933. Filipino legislators then proposed the inclusion of “nine features” of the KIG, formerly known as “Las Corales,” to the Philippine territory.

    The nine geographic features that the Philippines occupies are:

    Philippine Name

    International Name

    Lawak Island

    Nanshan Island

    Kota Island

    Loaita Island

    Likas Island

    West York Island

    Pag-asa Island

    Thitu Island

    Parola Island

    Lankiam Cay

    Panata Island

    Northeast Cay

    Patag Island

    Flat Island

    Rizal Reef

    Commodore Reef

    Ayungin Shoal

    Second Thomas Shoal

    (Source: The West Philippine Sea: A Territorial and Maritime Jurisdiction Disputes from a Filipino Perspective)

    Kalayaan is now a fifth-class town in Palawan comprising only one barangay: Pag-asa. It is also the smallest municipality in the country, with only 184 people, according to the 2015 census.

    China, Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei are also laying claim to the more than 50 features and surrounding waters in the Kalayaan Island Group. KIG is located in what is internationally known as Spratly Islands.

    All of them, except Brunei, have set up communities, military garrisons and other facilities to protect their claims.


    The West Philippine Sea: A Territorial and Maritime Jurisdiction Disputes from a Filipino Perspective

    The 1987 Philippine Constitution

    Foreign Investments Act

    Presidential Decree No. 1596: Declaring Certain Area Part of the Philippine Territory and providing for their Government and Administration

    Highlights Philippine Population 2015 Philippine Census of Population

    Bernas, J. (2011) The 1987 Philippine Constitution: A Comprehensive Reviewer. Quezon City, Philippines: Rex Printing Co. Inc.

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