The conflict between China and the Philippines in the Western Philippine Sea (a.k.a. the South China Sea) is the result of years of territorial dispute over the Spratly Islands – a group of 7,500 islands and reefs that multiple countries have claimed as their own.
The Spratlys are strategically located along major trade routes, valuable as fishing grounds, and a source of other natural resources like oil. Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia, and Brunei also lay claim to the Spratlys citing historical records and more.
China is no different. It cites the “nine-dash line,” which first appeared in 1947 atlases, as the basis for its claim. The line, it said, is a historical demarcation of its continental shelf, although the line itself has no fixed coordinates.
Currently, the “nine-dash line” which appears in Chinese maps, claims a majority of the South China Sea as part of China’s national boundary and asserts sovereignty over the islands within and the adjacent water.
This has emboldened China to build artificial islands in the Spratlys, damaging the ecosystem of the West Philippine Sea in the process.
However, China’s self-proclaimed demarcation contradicts the UNCLOS or the
United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. UNCLOS is the international standard for maritime zones such as:
- Territorial waters
- Contiguous zone
- Exclusive economic zone (EEZ)
- Continental shelves
Despite diplomatic resolutions, tensions over opposing claims reached a breaking point in 2012 with the Scarborough Shoal Standoff, in which Chinese surveillance vessels prevented the Philippine Navy from arresting Chinese fishermen anchored within the atoll.
The Scarborough Shoal is a chain of reefs located about 230 kilometers from the Philippines, and about 650 kilometers from the southern Chinese province of Hainan. It lies in the Exclusive Economic Zone of the Philippines, with China and Taiwan also claiming it as within their sovereign territory.
The standoff, as well as other maritime aggressions by China such as building artificial islands and illegally fishing and harvesting corals and live sharks, led the Philippines to file a case with the UN-backed Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) in The Hague, Netherlands.
The Trial of the Century
On July 16, 2016, the PCA tribunal ruled in favor of the Philippines. In a 501-page decision, the PCA said that China violated Philippine sovereignty over its EEZ and continental shelf based on the rules set forth by UNCLOS, which overrides China’s “nine-dash line” rule.
The PCA detailed the following actions of China as proof:
- Interfering with Philippine petroleum exploration at Reed Bank
- Preventing Filipinos from fishing near Scarborough Shoal since 2012 (Both Chinese and Filipino fishermen have traditional fishing rights at Scarborough Shoal, which has not been replaced by UNCLOS so China cannot stop Filipino fishermen from venturing into the Shoal.)
- Allowing Chinese fishermen to fish in Mischief Reef and Second Thomas Shoal which are within the Philippines’ EEZ
- Constructing artificial islands on Mischief Reef without Philippine authorization
- Causing severe harm to the coral reef as a result of the construction, which violates the environmental protection provisions of UNCLOS
- Not stopping Chinese fishermen from illegally harvesting endangered giant clams, coral, and sea turtles, which violates the environmental protection provisions of UNCLOS
- Risking collision and violating maritime safety laws by having Chinese law enforcement vessels venture into the Scarborough Shoal
- Violating its obligations during the settlement process
The PCA said that China must henceforth respect Philippines rights and uphold its obligations under UNCLOS.
Because it did not participate in the proceedings with the PCA, China has rejected the ruling claiming it has no binding force. However, the PCA decision puts the Philippines on higher ground in the eyes of the world and adds international diplomatic pressure on China.
In fact, China has stepped up its game. In May 2018, US intelligence reported that China has installed anti-ship cruise missile, surface-to-air missile systems, and electronic jammers in three of its outposts in the Spratlys. China also announced deploying bomber planes to the Parcel Islands, an area of the Spratlys that is also being claimed by Vietnam and Taiwan.
In response to the PCA decision, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte said that he would not “go to war for a battle I cannot win.” He and his administration have been under fire, with 84% of Filipinos wanting a more assertive stance against China’s aggressions, according to Pulse Asia.
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