by ROMMEL C. BANLAOI
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 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 .
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, , 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 , 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 (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 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 ().
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 Force. It also has a naval detachment maintained by the Naval Forces West of the . 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 (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.