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A Timeline And Guide To The West Philippine Sea

What is the reality confronting us in this highly contentious tug-of-war on the high seas?

#CandyResearchPaper is a series where we take a closer look at issues relevant to today's Filipino youth, for a clearer understanding of the context of the news we see on our feeds.

In October, the Dreamworks film Abominable, which was a joint production with Shanghai-based Pearl Studios, was pulled out of theaters in the Philippines and also banned in Vietnam due to a controversial scene depicting China's invalidated nine-dash line map in the background. This was just one of many recent discussions about the West Philippine Sea (WPS), yet another reason to revisit the facts behind the issue.

The Philippines–China West Philippine Sea (WPS) Dispute

In the words of President Rodrigo Duterte in his State of the Nation Address (SONA) on July 22, 2019: “The West Philippine Sea is ours. There is no ifs and buts.” But… is it? What is the reality confronting us in this highly contentious tug-of-war on the high seas? Let’s revisit several crucial aspects of the Philippines–China West Philippine Sea (WPS) dispute to guide us in understanding this issue. 

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Did you know that…?

Before we proceed, let’s review some of the terms that we often hear and associate with this issue. Differentiating these concepts from one another is definitely crucial in understanding the complicated dispute involving the Philippines and China.

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Multiple Claimants - Contrary to popular belief, the Philippines and China are not the only claimants of a part of or the entire South China Sea (SCS). Brunei, Malaysia, Indonesia, Taiwan, and Vietnam are also involved in separate disputes over islands and maritime areas in this region.

South China Sea - SCS is a body of water that forms part of the Pacific Ocean and surrounded by several countries, including Brunei, China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam.

West Philippine Sea - WPS is the official designation of the eastern area of SCS included in the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ). This maritime area also includes the Luzon Sea and the waters surrounding the Kalayaan Island Group and Scarborough Shoal (also called Panatag Shoal or Bajo de Masinloc). The term “WPS” was officially adopted on September 5, 2012, when former President Benigno S. Aquino III signed Administrative Order No. 29.

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Territorial sea - Territorial sea (or waters) refers to the area of water that extends 12 nautical miles from the baseline of a coastal state and is considered its sovereign territory.

Exclusive economic zone - EEZ is a marine area that extends 200 nautical miles from the baseline over which a state has jurisdiction or sovereign rights, particularly in exploring and using marine resources, including energy production.

Spratlys - The Spratlys are a group of disputed islands, islets, and reefs in SCS, which includes the Kalayaan Island Group and Scarborough Shoal. Brunei, China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Malaysia claim part or all of these island groups

Scarborough Shoal - Scarborough Shoal is the international name of Panatag Shoal (also called Bajo de Masinloc), a triangular-shaped formation/group of rocks and reefs with an inner lagoon. This area has been a traditional fishing ground of Filipino fishermen but is highly disputed among the Philippines, China, and Taiwan. China currently has physical control over this shoal.

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Nine-dash line - The nine-dash line is a “territorial demarcation” that China uses as basis for its claims over the entire South China Sea.

UNCLOS - The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Seas (UNCLOS) is the international treaty that primarily defines the territorial seas of countries and the maritime areas in which they could exploit marine resources.

What’s the big deal?

Now, what’s the big deal over WPS again? Resources! Territory and sovereignty aside, this particular geographic region offers extensive fishing grounds and other marine resources to Filipinos. More importantly, the disputed area has the potential to provide the country with sufficient supply of oil and natural gas for its fuel/energy demand for decades to come. In fact, the possibility of the WPS holding extensive deposits of these sources of energy has prompted the Philippines and China to continue discussions for future joint explorations in this area.

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References:

The Philippines and the West Philippine Sea, The DimplomatU.P. marine scientists: 'West Philippine Sea is for Filipinos', RapplerSovereignty vs sovereign rights: What do we have in West PH Sea?, RapplerThe Environment And Marine Resources Of The West Philippine Sea, Dumaguete Metro PostSouth China Sea, Lowy InstitutePhilippines renames coast 'West Philippine Sea', South China Morning PostThe West Philippine Sea?, The Diplomat

Dispute through the Years

In the past three decades, the Philippines and China have been involved in numerous confrontations and standoffs related to their maritime dispute. The following incidents through the years have continuously emphasized the volatile nature of this issue, particularly on the Philippines. 

1994 

The 1982 United Nations Convention for the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) became effective after 60 countries ratified it. The Philippines ratified UNCLOS in 1984 and China in 1996. The United States (US) has never ratified this treaty.

1995 

China takes control of Mischief Reef, primarily by constructing octagonal huts on stilts that Chinese officials say will serve as shelters for fishermen. The Philippines filed a protest through the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

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2009 

China submits its nine-dash line map to the United Nations by stating that it “has indisputable sovereignty over the islands in the South China Sea and the adjacent waters.” Other claimant countries protested the Chinese claim.

February 25, 2011

Chinese Navy frigate fired at fishing boats of Filipinos in the vicinity of Quirino Atoll after instructing the locals to leave the area.

May 23, 2011

China began building “military garrisons and outposts” in several reefs that are part of the Kalayaan Island Group.

October 20, 2011

Philippine Navy ship “rammed” a small Chinese fishing boat near Reed Bank. The incident prompted the Philippine government to issue an apology to the Chinese Embassy in Manila.

April 11, 2012

The presence of Chinese fishing vessels at Scarborough Shoal resulted in a standoff between the Philippine and Chinese navies, which immediately deployed the BRP Gregorio del Pilar and surveillance ships, respectively.

July 18, 2012

China placed barriers at the entry point of the Scarborough Shoal lagoon to block Filipino fishing vessels from entering.

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January 22, 2013

The administration of former President Benigno S. Aquino III filed an arbitration case against China at the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague to settle their maritime dispute.

January 27, 2014

A Chinese Coast Guard vessel reportedly fired a water cannon at Filipino fishermen in the vicinity of Bajo de Masinloc.

March 10, 2014

The Department of National Defense confirmed that the Chinese Coast Guard expelled two Philippine vessels from Ayungin Shoal in the Spratlys.

July 12, 2016

The Philippines won the landmark arbitration case against China.

February 5, 2018 

Photos published by the Philippine Daily Inquirer revealed China’s continued reclamation activities in the West Philippine Sea.

May 19, 2018

China’s state-run People's Daily uploaded a video on Twitter showing several bombers landing and taking off from Woody Island. The Philippine government filed a note verbale on May 26.

March 15, 2019

Former Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario and former Ombudsman Conchita Carpio Morales filed a case (on behalf of Filipino fishermen) of crimes “which involve massive, near-permanent, and devastating environmental damage across nations” before the International Criminal Court's Office of the Prosecutor against Chine’s President Xi Jinping and other Chinese officials.

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June 9, 2019

A Chinese fishing vessel sank a Philippine fishing vessel (from Occidental Mindoro) in an alleged collision in WSP. The fishermen were eventually rescued by a Vietnamese fishing vessel. Philippine defense officials announced the incident to the public on June 12. The owner of the Chinese vessel eventually issued an apology two months after the incident.

June 10, 2019

The Philippine Coast Guard reported the presence of several Chinese vessels, including a navy warship, two Chinese Coast Guard vessels, and two militia boats, in Scarborough Shoal.

Reality versus Expectations

The WPS dispute between the Philippines and China obviously boils down to two ideas, namely, expectations and reality. Yes, reality bites: China is powerful, it has physical control of some islands that we believe are ours, and alone, we cannot match them in terms of military capabilities. But based on principle and the rule of law, strengthened by the support of many countries who recognize the ironclad ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration in 2016: the WPS and the disputed groups of islands in the area within our territorial waters and EEZ. Again, the words of President Duterte sum it all up: “The West Philippine Sea is ours.”

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References:

The Philippines and the West Philippine Sea, The Dimplomat

U.P. marine scientists: 'West Philippine Sea is for Filipinos', Rappler

Sovereignty vs sovereign rights: What do we have in West PH Sea?, Rappler

The Environment And Marine Resources Of The West Philippine Sea, Dumaguete Metro Post

South China Sea, Lowy Institute

Philippines renames coast 'West Philippine Sea', South China Morning Post

The West Philippine Sea?, The Diplomat

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Frederick N. Castillo
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