Thursday, July 14, 2011



Originally published at the Philippine Star on July 13, 2011

Despite the current security tensions that can increase the risks of war due to clash of sovereignties in the Spratlys, peace and stability is still the way ahead in this contested body water.

There are four major reasons why.

First, all claimants, namely Brunei, China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam have all agreed to manage the disputes in the Spratlys peacefully. Though all sovereign states have the right to use force when their vital national interests are threatened, the use of force to settle international disputes is no longer the norm in international politics.

The principle of peaceful settlement of inter-state conflicts is embodied in the Charter of the United Nations (UN), in which all sovereign states are members of. The UN has also provided various mechanisms for the peaceful settlement of international disputes in order to ameliorate the security dilemma of states in the condition of international anarchy.

The 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea or DOC also articulates the maxim of pacific settlement of disputes. Although the DOC is non-binding for just being a declaration, all claimants refer to it when problems arise in the South China Sea.

Second, we now live in the era of globalization where all sovereign states have become so interconnected through commerce, trade, and tourism.    This interconnectedness is evident in the South China Sea through international navigation.

It is already well known that the South China Sea is one of the busiest sea routes in the world. In fact, the South China Sea is a maritime superhighway with at least 50,000 ships passing through its sea-lanes annually. Thus, waging a war in the Spratlys is costly for claimants and counter-productive for all states depending on the freedom of navigation in the area.

Third, though claimants are presently upgrading their military capabilities, they are not designed to invade other states or to occupy already occupied features in the Spratlys. They are designed to increase their capabilities to protect their occupied features and to patrol the waters covering them.   They are also designed to deter other claimants to make new occupations as required by the DOC.

If claimants have overlapping waters to patrol, they can sort our their differences through negotiations, either bilaterally or multilaterally.

Acquisition of submarines, frigates, corvettes, and offshore patrol vessels by claimants are not meant to support an “invasion” force. They are being acquired to primarily confront the growing non-traditional security threats in the maritime domain such as piracy and armed robbery against ships, drug trafficking, arms smuggling, human trafficking and international terrorism.   Without those naval assets, “internal waters” and Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) of claimants will be prone to abuse by non-traditional sources of security threats. The current tensions in the Spratlys gave claimants a strong justification before their taxpayers to increase national budget for naval acquisitions.

Finally, the current tensions in the Spratlys are in fact blessings in disguise.   Through the current tensions, claimants are able to express their strategic intentions, something that were not expressed before. 

The current tensions gave all claimants a better understanding of the disputes and their respective national positions on the issue.    With this understanding, claimants will be more circumspect and nuanced in dealing with each other in order to avoid a war in the Spratlys.

If there are claimants anticipating an inter-state war in the Spratlys, they have not come to grips with the reality of globalization and complex interdependence of nations. They will become a pariah state whose behavior is not in sync with international norms of peaceful behavior.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Gov't-MILF Peace Talks: More Talks, Less Peace?

by Rommel C. Banlaoi

Originally published in Philippine Star on September 6, 2011

In a press conference in Camp Darapanan on 5 September 2011, Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) Chairman, Al haj Murad Ebrahim expressed his strong disappointments on the current status of the peace talks. 

“The peace talks will just be an exercise in futility if the direction of the peace process will not represent the aspiration of the Bangsamoro people,” Murad argued.

For the MILF, enjoying the right to self-determination is the real aspiration of the Bangsamoro people - something that is not fully guaranteed in the “3 in 1” peace proposal of the Government of the Republic of the Philippines (GPH).

Originally, the MILF regarded the right of the Bangsamoro people for self-determination to mean a creation of an independent and separate Islamic state.

But Murad stressed that the MILF already relaxed its concept of self-determination to mean a creation of sub-state – a Bangsamoro state “within” but “independent” of the Republic of the Philippines. He explained that a sub-state “is a fully autonomous political entity that is self-governing and can stand alone.” He said that the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) “is a failed experiment” because “it failed to stand alone” for having been just an administrative arm of Malacanang.

For the GPH, however, solving the armed conflicts in Mindanao must be consistent with the 1987 Philippine Constitution – something that the MILF regards as a big stumbling block in the peace process. The GPH argues that the MILF concept of a sub-state poses a challenge to the existing constitution. The government is bound by the terms of the constitution in the peace negotiation.

The 1987 Philippine Constitution says that the Philippines is a unitary state. Thus, the MILF concept of a sub-state is unconstitutional.

Apparently, there is a now a huge gap between the GPH and the MILF in their understanding on how to solve the armed conflicts in Mindanao. 

This gap is now creating an impasse in the current peace talks.

If not mutually resolved by the two parties, this impasse can develop into a deadlock that can pave the way to the resumption of hostilities in Mindanao, something that we, stakeholders of peace, do not want to happen.

But Murad said that “we are not yet at a deadlock.”

He underscored that “The MILF continues to adhere to the guidance of our revered leader, the late Salamat Hashim, that the peaceful, democratic and civilized was to resolve the conflict between the Bangsamoro and the Philippine Government is through negotiations.”

Murad lamented, however, that “As the negotiations drag on with no solution to the Bangsamoro Question on sight, some sector of the Bangsamoro society lost hope in the peace process.”

According to Murad, the MILF has been negotiating with the Philippine Government for the past 14 years. In these long years of negotiation, Murad said that the MILF already made its clear stand on how the Bangsamoro people can achieve their right to self-determination. Murad said that in the present negotiation, there is no need to reinvent the wheel. But the GPH peace proposal, he argued, “is bringing the negotiation back to zero.”

It is very sad to note that after 14 years of negotiations, what we have seen are more talks and less peace.

Maybe more talks are not enough. We need much more talks to finally achieve more peace in our land.

Friday, July 1, 2011



Originally published at the Philippine Star on June 30, 2011

When the United States assured its friends and allies in Southeast Asia that it is committed to defend and assist them on rising tensions in the Spratlys, China just warned the US to back off and stay out of the South China Sea disputes.

China’s Vice foreign minister, Cui Tiankai, even stressed that “the United States is not a claimant state to the dispute. So, it is better for the United States to leave the dispute to be sorted out between the claimant states.”
With exemption of Taiwan, all claimants in the Spratlys are all sovereign states with a defined territory in which they should exercise full control. However, they have clash of sovereignties over some territories in the South China Sea called by Vietnam as East Sea and by the Philippines as West Philippine Sea.

China’s Indisputable Sovereignty

China claims “indisputable sovereignty” of all the waters and features in the South China covered within its so-called “nine-dashed lines” map submitted to the United Nations. However, China only occupies seven features in the Spratlys – Chigua Reef, Cuarteron Reef, Fiery Cross Reef, Gaven Reef, Johnson Reef,  Mischief Reef, and Subi Reef.

All these reefs occupied by China have highly cemented structures. China maintains very impressive helipad facilities in Chigua Reef, Gaven Reef, and Johnson Reef. It has three-storey concrete building in Mischief Reef. All its facilities in the nine occupied features have dipole and parabolic disc antenna, search lights, solar panels, various types of radars and gun emplacements.

Taiwan’s Identical Sovereignty Claims with China

Taiwan has identical claims to sovereignty with China. Countries adopting a one-China policy regards Taiwan as a mere province of China. Thus, Taiwan’s sovereign claim in the South China Sea disputes is complicated. But it occupies the largest island in the Spratlys: the Itu Aba or Taiping Island that has an excellent helipad and a very long and highly cemented runway.

Vietnam’s Incontestable Sovereignty

Vietnam claims “incontestable sovereignty” of two island-groups in the South China Sea: the Paracels and the Spratlys. Clash of sovereignties in the Paracels only involved China and Vietnam (and to a certain extent Taiwan). In Spratlys, it involved Brunei, China, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam.

Vietnam presently occupies 21 islands, reefs and cay in the Spratlys with impressive facilities.  Its largest occupied island, Lagos (or Spratly Island), is the most heavily fortified with a solid runway, a pier, at least 35 building structures, around 20 storage tanks, at least 20 gun emplacements, at least 5 battle tanks and some parabolic disk antennas and a spoon rest radar.

Aside from Lagos Island, Vietnam also maintains facilities at Pugad Island (Southwest Cay), which is just less than two nautical miles away from the Philippine occupied island of Parola (Northeast Cay).  Pugad Island has several gun emplacements, gun shelters, civilian buildings, military barracks, parabolic disc antennas, concrete bunkers, a light house, a football field, a helipad, and many light posts.

Other facilities of Vietnam in at least 14 occupied reefs seem to follow a standard pattern of construction.  South Reef, Pentley Reef, Discovery Great Reef, Collins Reef, Pearson Reef, Lendao Reef, West Reef, Ladd Reef, Central London Reef, East Reef, Cornwallis Reef, Pigeon Reef, Allison Reef, and Barque Canada Reef have identical structures featuring a golden-painted three-storey concrete building with built-in light house on top, gun emplacements on both sides, T-type pier, solar panels, parabolic disc antennas, and garden plots. 

The Philippines’ Sovereignty Claim Based on “dominium maris” and “la terre domine la mer”

The Philippines claims sovereignty and jurisdiction in the Spratlys within its Kalayaan Island Group (KIG). It regards KIG as an “integral part of the Philippines.”

The Philippines strengthens its sovereignty claim using the Roman principle of “dominium maris” and the international law principle of “la terre domine la mer,” which means that land dominates the sea.

Under this principle, the Philippines argues that it is exercising sovereignty and jurisdiction over the waters around the KIG or adjacent to each relevant geological features of the Kalayaan Island, which is under the local government control of the Municipality of Kalayaan.  The Philippines contends that this position is provided for under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

The Philippines ranks second in the most number of occupied areas in the Spratlys. It is presently in control of nine facilities that are considered parts of the Municipality of Kalayaan: Ayungin (Second Thomas) Shoal, Kota (Loaita) Island, Lawak (Nanshan) Island, Likas (West York) Island, Pag-Asa (Thitu) Island, Panata Island (Lankiam) Cay, Parola Island (Northeast Cay) Patag (Flat) Reef,  and Rizal (Commodore) Reef.

Its largest occupied facility is the  Pag-Asa Island, the closest island to the Chinese occupied Subi Reef.  Pag-Asa Island has an already deteriorating run-way maintained by the 570th Composite Tactical Wing of the Philippine Air Force.  It also has a naval detachment maintained by the Naval Forces West of the Philippine Navy.  Pag-Asa island has municipal hall called Kalayaan Hall, a village hall called Barangay Pag-Asa, a police station maintained by the Philippine National Police (PNP), sports facilities, observation tower, a commercial mobile phone station, and several civilian houses and military barracks. 

The Philippines also maintains makeshift naval detachment facilities in five other islands, one reef and one shoal.  Its facilities in the Rizal Reef are just wooden structures  and two small single-storey hexagonal concrete buildings manned by four personnel of the Philippine Navy.

The Philippines also maintains a naval detachment in Ayungin Shoal established out of a dilapidated Landing Ship Tank called LST 57.  Ayungin Shoal is the closest structure of the Philippines to the controversial Mischief Reef occupied by China.

Malaysia’s Sovereignty Claim Based on Continental Reef Principle

Malaysia’s claim to sovereignty in the Spratly is based on the continental reef principle outlined by UNCLOS. As such, Malaysia claims 12 features in the Spratlys. But it only presently occupies six features: Ardasier Reef, Dallas Reef, Erica Reef, Investigator Shoal, Mariveles Reef, and Swallow Reef.

Malaysia has well-maintained facilities in the Swallow Reef.  This reef has a diving center called “Layang-Layang”.  Swallow Reef has a resort-type hotel, swimming pool, windmills, communication antennas, control communication tower, civilian houses, military barracks and a helipad.

Malaysia also has a very good facility in the Ardasier Reef with an excellent helipad, sepak takraw court, gun emplacements and control tower.  The facilities in the Ardasier Reef are almost identical with the Malaysian facilities in Erica Reef, Mariveles Reef and Investigator Shoal.    Malaysia also maintains a symbolic obelisk marker in the Louisa Reef being claimed by Brunei.

Brunei Sovereignty Claim Based on EEZ

Brunei’s claim to sovereignty in the Spratlys is based on the principle of Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) provided for by UNCLOS. It provides coastal states 200 nautical miles EEZ in which coastal states have sovereign right to exploit resources of the area.

Brunei does not occupy any feature in the Spratlys. But it asserts that the Louisa Reef being claimed by Malaysia is part of Brunei’s EEZ.

Managing Contested Sovereignty Claims in the Spratlys

The Spratly dispute is a complex case of contested sovereignty claims. Because of the strategic value of the Spratlys, which is proven to have enormous oil and natural gas resources not to mention its very rich marine resources, it is very unlikely for all claimants to surrender their sovereignty claims.

All claimants rule out the use of force to resolve their maritime disputes in the Spratlys. But they continue to upgrade their military capabilities to assert their respective claims.

They also use UNCLOS as the basis of their claims. But they seldom use UNCLOS to manage their differences. China prefers to manage the Spratly disputes bilaterally. But other claimants want to internationalize the issue.
With the Spratly disputes now upped the ante, tensions can furhter escalate if claimants remains intransigent in their sovereignty claims.

To manage disputes in the Spratlys peacefully, claimants may consider anew the shelving of sovereignty issues and be more pragmatic in exploring the possibilities of joint development. This is an option that can put claimants in a win-win situation.