By Rommel C. Banlaoi
There is a huge avalanche of literature on the South China Sea, one of the largest bodies of waters in the world after the five major oceans. Located in the Pacific, it encompasses areas from the Malacca Strait to the Taiwan Strait measuring around 3,500,000 km². The South China Sea is composed of four major groups of islands, namely the Pratas Islands, the Paracel Islands, Macclesfield Bank, and the Spratly Islands. Ownership of these islands has been contested by several claimants for various reasons including among others historic rights, discovery, effective occupation and sovereign jurisdiction provided for by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the SEA (UNCLOS). Because the South China Sea is a very strategic waterways surrounded by rich marine resources as well as oil and gas potential, the area is marred by international diplomatic disputes that, if not effectively managed, can escalate into military conflicts. The South China Sea Dispute is therefore creating a security anxiety for being one of the flashpoints of conflict in the Asia Pacific.
Among these groups of islands, the most controversial is the Spratly Islands having been claimed in whole by China and Taiwan and in part by Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam. Indonesia, though strictly not a claimant state, is an important stakeholder to the on-going conflict in the Spratlys because of its overlapping Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) with other claimants, particularly its Gas Field in Natuna Island being contested by China and Taiwan.
The Philippines is claiming some parts of the Spratlys that belong to what it calls the Kalayaan Island Group (KIG). The KIG lies in the Western section of the Spratlys. It is composed of 53 islands, islets, reefs, shoals, cays, rocks, and atolls with an area of 64,976 square miles. The biggest island in the KIG is Pag-asa (Hope), more internationally known as Thi Tu Island. Aside from Pag-Asa Island, the Philippines has also occupied the following features:
· Patag Island
· Lawak Island
· Likas Island
· Panata Island
· Kota Island
· Parola Island
· Rizal Reef
· Ayungin shoal
The Philippine government started to lay its claim in the South China Sea in 1947, a year after the Philippines gained its independence from the United States. During that time, the Philippine government described the Spratlys as the “New Southern Islands”. Then Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Carlos P. Garcia requested the Allied Forces to put the “New Southern Islands” under Philippine jurisdiction for security reasons. The Philippines even asserted its sovereignty to the KIG before the United Nations (UN) General Assembly in the 1950s. Since 1968, the Philippine military has effectively occupied and administered at least eight of the islands in the KIG.
On 11 June 1978, then President Ferdinand E. Marcos signed Presidential Decree No. 1596 declaring the KIG as a municipality of Palawan. PD 1596 vividly reflects Philippine policy position on this claim when it states that the KIG “does not belong to any state or nation, but, by reason of history, indispensable need, and effective occupation and control established in accordance with international law, such areas must not be deemed to belong and subject to the sovereignty of the Philippines.” It has also declared the area as vital to the security and economic survival of the Philippines. Since then, residents of KIG have been holding local elections there to demonstrate Philippine sovereignty in the area. The Philippines recognizes the fact that there are other claimants on the KIG. PD 1596 articulates Philippine perspective on this matter when it says that “while other state have laid claims to some of these areas, their claims have lapsed by abandonment and can not prevail over that of the Philippines on legal, historical, and equitable grounds.”
Another basis of Philippine claim of the KIG is the principle of terra nullius. This principle states that the islands being claimed by the Philippines are owned by no one and without a sovereign authority. The discovery and occupation of Filipino navigator Tomas Cloma of around 33 islands, cays, sandbars and coral reefs in the South China Sea on 15 May 1956 provided the Philippines a historical justification of the claim. The Filipino navigator collectively called these islands and islets as Free Territory of the Freedomland. In 1956, Cloma wrote a letter to Garcia to inform him of the occupation of the islands, which were described, to be outside of Philippine waters but not within the jurisdiction of any country. When the Philippine media publicized the Philippine claim, China, France, South Vietnam, the Netherlands and Taiwan reportedly laid their respective claims to this group of islands. Eventually, France and the Netherlands dropped their claims.
The Philippines also lays its claim on the basis of the principle of proximity and the principle of the 200-nautical mile EEZ embodied in the UNCLOS. The Philippines argues that the KIG falls within the EEZ of the Philippine archipelago.
The final basis of claim of the Philippines is the principle of the continental shelf. The KIG lies in the continental shelf abutting the Western boundaries of Palawan Province. Filipino geologists argue that Palawan is a mini-continent. On the basis of geological evidences, the KIG belongs to the continental shelf of Palawan. PD 1596 asserts this basis of claim when it states that the KIG “is part of the continental margin of the Philippine archipelago.”
This section is culled largely from Rommel C. Banlaoi, “Philippine Defense Policy Perspectives on the South China Sea and the Rise of China” in his Security Aspects of Philippines-China Relations: Bilateral Issues and Concerns in the Age of Global Terrorism (Quezon: Rex Book Store International, 2007), Chapter 5.
Examples are Mark J. Valencia, China and the South China Sea Disputes, Adelphi Paper No. 298 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995); Daniel Dzurek, The Spratly Islands Disputes (Durham: International Boundaries Research Uni, 1996).
Ralph A. Cossa, "Security Implications of Conflict in the South China Sea: Exploring Potential Triggers of Conflict", A Pacific Forum CSIS Special Report ", PacNet Newsletter #16. (April 17, 1998).
 Lu Ning, Flashpoint Spratlys (Singapore: Dolphin Trace Press Pte Ltd, 1995).
For more discussion, see Aileen S. Baviera (ed), The South China Sea Disputes: Philippine Perspectives (Manila: Philippine-China Development Resource Center and the Philippine Association for Chinese Studies, 1992).
Merliza M. Makinao, “Understanding the South China Sea Dispute”, OSS Briefing Paper (Quezon City: Office of Strategic and Special Studies, Armed Forces of the Philippines, 1988), p. 12.
See Haydee B. Yorac, “The Philippine Claim to the Spratly Island Group” in Theresa C. Carino (ed), China-ASEAN Relations: Regional Security and Cooperation (Manila: Philippine-China Development Resource Center, 1991) and Gil S. Fernandez, “The Philippine’s South China Sea Claims” in Baviera, pp. 18-24.