Nothing sparks as much intrigue and controversy these days as the case of the West Philippine Sea. It involves history, international tribunals, and maritime law. It’s a fascinating balancing act of geopolitics for all nations involved – one with immediate, real-world consequences.
Before we dive into the discussions about the area, we need to first qualify exactly what we are talking about. The term West Philippine Sea (WPS) was previously incorrectly used to refer to the South China Sea as a whole. An administrative order qualified the term, to now refer to only the eastern part of the South China Sea that is officially part of the Philippines’ territory.
This narrowing of scope really frames the issue in its proper context. All the recent developments are about the Philippines upholding its sovereignty, and nothing else. We are not claiming the entire South China Sea – just a part of it, which is already rightfully ours.
From last April’s news about Philippine and American Fleets challenging China’s presence in the WPS, to our coast guard driving away Chinese vessels that have been moored for quite some time inside our territory, the issue of the WPS is clear-cut. This is our territory, and we must defend it.
A Strategic and Abundant Region
Why, then, is this patch of ocean controversial in the first place? What is the deal with the WPS, and why should we care?
First of all, the South China Sea is an extremely rich region. There is an estimated 11 billion barrels of oil and 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas just sitting there. It is teeming with wildlife, with about 10% of the world’s fisheries found in the area. It’s also an important trade route, with 30% of the world’s shipping trade passing through regularly.
Whoever controls the South China Sea controls a very strategic part of the ocean. China has been making historical claims for almost a decade now, for almost 90% of the South China Sea. The basis? Lines on a 1947 Chinese map, which showed what is now known globally as the nine-dash line.
Lines on a Map Versus an International Agreement
To summarize, the nine-dash line is literally lines drawn on a map. China has used this to make its historical claims on the area. The problem is, parts of the South China Sea are also being claimed by five other countries: Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, Taiwan, and the Philippines. Unlike China, their claims are based on what is known as the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).
The UNCLOS is essentially an agreement between nations. The important provision to our discussion here is Part V, which defines what is known as the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). Article 57 states that 200 nautical miles from each country’s shore is officially classified as its EEZ. This means that since it’s part of their sovereign territory, countries have exclusive rights to these areas. All of the natural resources – oil, gas, and marine harvest – belong to them.
All the other countries use the UNCLOS to lay claim to areas in these disputed waters – except for China, which still sticks to the nine-dash line.
Ruling in Favor of the Philippines
We have been at the forefront of the issue in the West Philippine Sea ever since the 2012 Scarborough Shoal Incident. This led to us filing an arbitration case the following year before the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, in the Netherlands, to challenge China’s nine-dash line. This is the case that we won in 2016.
Basically, the 2016 Hague Ruling states that the international arbitral tribunal rules in favor of the Philippines over the West Philippine Sea. It is an affirmation from the international community that the Philippines owns exclusive rights over the WPS, and that China’s presence in the area is violating the Philippines’ sovereignty.
Simply put, in the eyes of the world, we own the West Philippine Sea, and China has no business there.
Overwhelming International Support
There is ongoing support from the international community for our claims in the WPS. Aside from the actual US fleets that supported us last April, even the European Union (EU) showed their support. The EU called out China for endangering peace in the South China Sea in their recent actions in Whitsun Reef (or what we call the Julian Felipe Reef).
Even Japan is showing us support. They recently provided our military with equipment, as part of their recent strategy of strengthening economic and military ties with the Philippines. Everyone seems to be on our side on this issue of the West Philippine Sea.
However, the WPS is still a very divisive issue in the country. There is still a lot of hesitation from some of our lawmakers, for instance. This goes to show that the issue of the WPS is a delicate balancing act. And we have yet to pursue a positive resolution.
Despite all of this, the fact remains that the West Philippine Sea belongs to the Philippines. At the end of the day, we must protect our sovereignty, and protect what is rightfully ours.