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Ayungin Shoal remains part of Philippines even if troops withdraw

Publication Date : 18-03-2014


Regardless of China’s demand that the Philippines leave Ayungin Shoal by towing away the grounded BRP Sierra Madre, it remains part of the country’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ), a maritime law expert said.

“The presence of the grounded ship (and the) soldiers (on Ayungin) does not affect the status of the waters or seabed,” Jay Batongbacal, director of the University of the Philippines’ (UP) Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea, said in a text message to

China recently demanded that the Philippines remove the BRP Sierra Madre, a dilapidated and rusting World War II-era ship that was grounded on Ayungin (Second Thomas Shoal) back in 1999 in response to China’s physical occupation of nearby Mischief Reef in 1995.

A small detachment of Marines are stationed on the Sierra Madre to keep watch over the Chinese Coast Guard (CCG) that regularly patrols the surrounding waters of the shoal which lies just 105 nautical miles from the coast of Palawan.

“The presence of soldiers is for the practical purpose of watching Mischief Reef and surveillance of the area, not to establish a claim,” Batongbacal said.

Last March 9, the CCG blocked two civilian vessels contracted by the Philippine Navy to bring fresh troops and supplies to the shoal.

China, however, claimed the Filipino ships were carrying construction materials with the intention of building facilities on the shoal, which China says is illegal.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said in a press conference in Beijing on Monday that the Philippines had made an “unequivocal commitment” to remove the ship but had not fulfilled its promise.

“What we see now is that the Philippine side rejects to tow away the ship. Furthermore, it tries to transport concrete and rebar and other construction materials with a purpose of building facilities on the reef,” Hong said.

Sought for comment on China’s demand, Batongbacal said the “removal does not affect the Philippines' EEZ jurisdiction. EEZ does not have to be occupied in order for it to pertain to a coastal State.”

Unclos' maritime features

Under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos), an international agreement signed and ratified by both the Philippines and China, there are three main types of maritime features in the oceans: islands, rocks and low tide-elevations (LTE).

Islands are natural formations of land that remain above water during high tide. They are entitled to a 12-nautical-mile (22-kilometer) territorial sea where it has full sovereignty and a 200-nm (370-km) EEZ where it has sole right to exploit the resources.

Rocks or reefs are maritime features that are mostly below water but have protrusions above water during high tide. It is distinct from islands in that it cannot sustain human habitation or economic life. These are entitled to a 12-nm territorial sea and no EEZ.

LTEs are fully submerged rocks and reefs rising from the seabed. These have no maritime entitlements and belong to the country whose continental shelf they are in.

“Ayungin is an LTE, it does not generate any maritime zone of its own. (Its) waters are part of (Philippine) EEZ and the seabed is part of (Philippine) continental shelf,” Batongbacal said.

Arbitration proceedings

The Philippines has a pending arbitration case before a United Nations court against China for its nine-dash line claim that covers nearly the entire South China Sea including parts of the Philippines western EEZ from Ilocos province in northern Luzon to Palawan in the southwest.

Citing historical claims in the region, China has occupied and constructed concrete facilities, including buildings, radar stations, helipads and docks, in at least six maritime features in the Spratly Islands: Cuarteron Reef, Fiery Cross Reef, Gaven Reef, Johnson South Reef, Mischief Reef and Subi Reef.

The Philippines, which is set to submit its memorial by March 30, hopes the UN court will declare China’s nine-dash line illegal and uphold the rights of the Philippines to the resource-rich Spratly Islands.


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