Commentary South China Sea: Waters of Contention

Who is protecting PH national interest in South China Sea?

An Unmanned underwater vehicle. U.S. Navy photo
An Unmanned underwater vehicle. U.S. Navy photo

A tense situation transpired 50 nautical miles northwest of Subic Bay in Zambales last Thursday when China seized the underwater drone installed by the United States Navy. Philippine top officials were unconcerned about it.

The Duterte government’s nonchalant attitude towards China’s seizure of the United States’ underwater drone in Philippine territory reflects its hazy understanding of sovereignty.

Sovereignty is the supreme right of the state to command obedience within its territory.

The Philippine territory, as stated in the Constitution, consists “of its terrestrial, fluvial and aerial domains, including its territorial sea, the seabed, the subsoil, the insular shelves, and other submarine areas. The waters around, between, and connecting the islands of the archipelago, regardless of their breadth and dimensions, form part of the internal waters of the Philippines.”

Two hundred nautical miles from the baselines is the exclusive economic zone of a coastal state.

USNS Bowditch. Photo by U.S. Navy
USNS Bowditch. Photo by U.S. Navy

As stated in the United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea or UNCLOS, in the EEZ, the coastal state has sovereign rights on the exploration of the zone including marine scientific research.

Navy Captain Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman, said the unmanned underwater vehicle (UUV) “was lawfully conducting a military survey in the waters of the South China Sea.” the official said.

The drone, reports said, was collecting oceanographic data, including salinity, temperature and clarity of the water.

Reports said USNS Bowditch, an oceanographic survey ship, was recovering the two drones when the Chinese ship approached and took one of the UVV.

On Saturday, U.S. President-elect Donald Trump injected comic relief to an otherwise grave potential conflict when he tweeted: “China steals United States Navy research drone in international waters – rips it out of water and takes it to China in unpresidented act.”

That 21-word tweet exposed the incoming American president’s ignorance of geography (50 nautical miles off Subic Bay is Philippine territory, not international waters) and ineptitude in spelling English words.

The tweet was later re-issued with the correct spelling of “unprecedented.”

Trump’s “unpresidented” tweet
Trump’s “unpresidented” tweet

Also on Saturday, Pentagon announced that China was returning the drone to them. This was confirmed by the China’s foreign ministry statement that “China decided to return it to the U.S. side in an appropriate manner, and China and the U.S. have all along been in communication about it.”

What has the Philippine government got to say about the China-US conbflict transpired in PH waters?

Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said until last Thursday’s incident, he didn’t know US drones were operating in the West Philippine Sea. He said he is not concerned about the seizure by China of the U.S drone because, “That is between the US and China.”

Nevertheless, he said they will talk about it in the next security cluster meeting.

Kabayan Partylist Rep. Harry Roque considers it “an invasion of our EEZ” and urged the Philippine government to file diplomatic protests against both the United States and China.

“The United States should not have conducted probes within our EEZ. Similarly, the act of the Chinese submarine in retrieving the said probe is also suspicious. The Philippines maintains its sovereign claim over various features within the West Philippine Sea and it has no interest in allowing its territory to be used as a battleground between the United States and China,” Roque said.

The Duterte government’s lack of concern about the drone incident is consistent with its reaction to reports ofChina’s installation of military facilities in its occupied islands in the disputed Spratlys in the South China Sea as articulated by Foreign Secretary Perfecto Yasay, Jr.

“Let them take whatever action is necessary in the pursuit of their national interest… and we will leave it at that, for the Philippines, we have our bilateral engagements with China,” Yasay said.

And what about Philippine national interest?

Fiery Cross Reef Nov. 10, 2016. Photo by Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative.
Fiery Cross Reef Nov. 10, 2016. Photo by Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative.

Justice Antonio Carpio is very much concerned. He said “If the Philippines does not formally protest, China can later claim that the Philippines consented, or at least acquiesced, to China’s military fortifications in the Spratlys, including Mischief Reef. The UNCLOS tribunal had already ruled that Mischief Reef is a submerged area of the continental shelf of the Philippine EEZ and thus only the Philippines can erect structures on Mischief Reef. Yasay’s unilateral declaration is a self-inflicted damage to Philippine national interest. “

He added that “When China seized Luconia Shoals from Malaysia in April 2013, Malaysia formally protested but without any publicity. Malaysia did not want China to later claim that Malaysia acquiesced to the seizure for lack of protest.”