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Presidential order heightens tensions between Philippines and China

Publication Date : 19-09-2012


Philippine President Benigno Aquino’s Administrative Order No. 29, which renames the South China Sea waters off the Philippines’ west coast the West Philippine Sea, heightened tensions between Manila and Beijing after the cancellation of the planned talks between Aquino and Chinese President Hu Jintao at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) leaders’ summit in Vladivostok, Russia, on September 8-9.

The order was signed by the President on September 5; it was made public on September 12 after his return from the summit, and made a shambles of the deteriorating relations between the Philippines and China.

Within days of the release of the order, a storm shaped up in China over the territorial disputes with the Philippines. The official Chinese news agency Xinhua blasted the order as indicative of the Philippines’ “political short-sightedness.” The China Daily derided it as “Manila’s name game,” and called it “a reckless decision.”

But despite the fallout from Beijing, AO 29 serves the Philippine government’s purpose of defining the parametres of its claim on parts of the South China Sea that it now declares located within its exclusive economic zone (EEZ).

The heightening tensions ruled out a bilateral meeting between Presidents Aquino and Hu after the collapse of the arrangements for their planned talks over the contending claims on the South China Sea, in light of the fact that Hu is expected to step down from office sometime next month during the congress of the Communist Party of China.

After his return from Vladivostok, Aquino said he was still hoping for “a dialogue where we can have a heart-to-heart talk and share our thoughts in total honesty and openness.” He said “that seems to be the way forward to settle all of these things.” But this is wishful thinking. Experience tells us that you cannot engage the Chinese in a “heart-to-heart talk” and get results the way you want it. The only way they can respect you is by standing up to them; otherwise, they bully you.

The Aquino administration began calling the South China Sea West Philippine Sea in March last year, after Chinese patrol ships harassed Filipino fishing boats within an area in the Spratly Islands that the Philippines claims, the Inquirer reported. According to the president, AO 29 covers only “portions of the South China Sea.”

These portions embrace the Philippines’ 370-kilometre EEZ. Scarbourough Shoal, also known as Panatag Shoal, is within the country’s EEZ, he said.

In contrast to China’s claim, which declares all of the South China Sea its sovereign territory, the president said: “I just want to be precise… I’m sure that Panatag Shoal, or Bajo de Masinloc, is within our EEZ and also has been part [of the country] historically.”

“It is important to clarify which portions we claim as ours versus the entirety of the South China Sea,” he added, pointing out the need to officially rename the areas because some countries call these by other names. “We call it West Philippine Sea. There is a portion of it they call East Sea. Each one calls it by another name. Let’s make clear what areas we claim are ours.”

AO 29 points out that to justify the renaming of the waters to the west of the provinces of Palawan and Zambales, Presidential Decree No. 1599 (issued in 1978) established the Philippine EEZ. In 2009, Congress enacted Republic Act No. 9522, or the Baselines Law, which defines and describes the baselines of the Philippine archipelago.

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 nonliving, renewable or nonrenewable, of the seabed, including the subsoil and the adjacent waters, and to conduct other activities for the economic exploitation and the exploration of its maritime domain, such as the production of energy from the water, currents and winds.”

China swiftly disputed these claims. On September 14, Xinhua news agency said that despite China’s urging the Philippines to ease tensions over territorial disputes and promote bilateral ties, the Philippines has officially claimed maritime areas near its coast, including part of China’s territories in the South China Sea. Xinhua said that the Philippine order claims waters around, within and adjacent to Nansha Islands (known as Kalayaan in the Philippines) and Huangyan Island (Panatag Shoal or Bajo de Masinloc in the Philippines).

According to the Chinese Foreign Ministry, “South China Sea” is a commonly recognised name in the international community and widely accepted by countries across the globe and international organisations such as the United Nations. The foreign ministry said the Philippines’ move could not change the fact that “China claims indisputable sovereignty over islands in the South China Sea, including Nansha Islands and Huangyan Island, as well as their surrounding waters.”

Scarbourough Shoal remains roped off by Chinese maritime vessels blocking the entry of Filipino fishers. With the rupture of bilateral talks between Presidents Aquino and Hu, the dispute has been driven to the edge of gunboat diplomacy for resolution.


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