Acting Chief Justice Antonio Carpio, one of the staunchest advocates on the maritime issues surrounding West Philippine Sea, delivered a talk titled “The South China Sea Dispute: Philippines vs. China” last March 1. The talk, organized by the International Studies Department, tackled the history and background of the territorial dispute, the actions currently being done in the islands, and the steps the Philippine government can take to enforce the tribunal’s ruling.
The Duterte administration is currently being criticized for seemingly invalidating the work of their predecessors by adopting a relatively soft stance toward the issue. Time and time again, Duterte has made statements about how asserting legal ownership over the disputed islands is not a priority, in spite of the months-long arbitration proceedings previously pursued at the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) in the Netherlands which culminated in a ruling awarding exclusive rights over the disputed area to the Philippines.
Joint exploration with China
The administration’s latest pronouncements have been in support of the idea of a joint exploration with China, with Duterte even likening it to co-ownership of the disputed area. Carpio, however, warns against this, as it may have implications on the legal ownership of the disputed area. “My suspicion is that this is the ultimate objective of China. China’s only said ‘meet us halfway in this dispute,’ and I interpret that to mean they will be happy if we give to them half of our [Exclusive Economic Zone] (EEZ),” he shares. Carpio further explains that joint exploration or even the employment of companies to extract the resources in the area does not, and should not, equate to co-ownership.
Aside from losing an important source of marine wealth, the mere act of conceding legal rights over the area to China is against the Philippine Constitution. Carpio says that, as head of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, “it is [Duterte’s] duty to protect our marine wealth in our EEZ, and the last thing he should do is concede half of that to China.”
Research in these areas is also a crucial aspect of developing protective measures. While collaborations with foreign researchers are not prohibited, the government seems to be of the opinion that Filipino researchers are incapable of pursuing the project on their own. This was strongly evident in a statement made by Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque, who claimed that no one else but the team from the Institute of Oceanology at the Chinese Academy of Sciences was qualified since the project was capital-intensive. While the research will be done together with members from the University of the Philippines – Marine Science Institute (UP-MSI) in compliance with government regulations, there is a strong demand of assurance that the research findings will be shared and published to avoid the failure of its predecessor – the 2005 Joint Marine Seismic Undertaking, which was discontinued due to corruption allegations and its findings left unpublished.
What we’re losing by failing to act
According to Carpio, failing to act on the territorial disputes will cost the country the loss of a much-needed energy source, lead to potential security risks, and exposure to further environmental degradation.
The West Philippine Sea is known to be a large source of natural gas deposits, the most notable of which is methane hydrate. Reed Bank, situated off the coast of Palawan, is one of the known spots for methane hydrate deposits. The Philippine government is eyeing Reed Bank as a potential replacement for the Malampaya gas field, which houses gas deposits that are expected to be depleted by 2024.
In addition, the government’s lack of action on the issue has implications on the country’s national security. China’s reclamation and militarization of islands in the West Philippine Sea was captured and published by Inquirer in February of this year. As seen in the aerial photographs, the previously submerged areas of the Fiery Cross Reef, Subi Reef, and Mischief Reef have been transformed into air and naval bases through the construction of hardened runways, military barracks, and radar domes. The establishment of these bases has made it easier for Chinese vessels and fighter jets to reach the Philippines, as well as monitor activity in the southern part of the country.
Despite the pronouncements of the government downplaying the alarming developments in the area, Carpio insists that the military structures and missiles are there for a hostile purpose, which is to enforce the nine-dashed line and China’s supposed national territory. He also emphasizes the fact that the issue is the “gravest external threat to our country since World War II.”
Other than being a threat to the country’s national security, the reclamation activities being done by China have caused permanent and irreparable harm to the marine environment within the West Philippine Sea, which is home to 30% of the world’s total coral reef. China’s dredging in the area has destroyed marine life in 17 atoll reefs. In addition, China has also failed to prevent its fishermen from harvesting endangered species such as sea turtles, giant clams, and corals.
Next realistic step for the PH, the world
Despite the challenges he identified, Carpio maintains that taking diplomatic means to resolve the problem at hand is the best and most suitable method. One particular case he cites is the Ukraine vs. Russia territorial issue that led to the former demanding payment for damages as compensation for economic losses incurred. Ukraine’s case mirrors that of the Philippines in terms of actions taken, as the state also decided to use the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) as their recourse.
Should the Philippines opt to take the same route as Ukraine, Carpio stated that they must at least give China a graceful exit. “If China will refuse, will prevent us from getting gas in Reed Bank, we will now do what Ukraine is doing. It can be done, but it needs political will,” he continues, “In arbitration, you have to give something to the other side so that it will be a win-win, because you don’t want them to get nothing. [You] raise issues that you’re prepared to lose.”
The maritime dispute at hand is of interest to more than just Southeast Asia and China. Failing to resolve the issue through diplomatic means with the best interests of both countries in mind will lead to other powerful countries around the world dominating weaker states with ease. Additionally, it may restrict the freedom of overflight and navigation enjoyed by other countries who pass through key areas like the West Philippine Sea. These include the United States, Great Britain, and Australia among others.
Other concerns tied to the maritime dispute
With the government’s attention currently drawn towards building an economic partnership with China, the chances of resolving the issue of the disputed territory remain unknown. Officials like Carpio, who continue to lobby for diplomatic action, caution against developing a growing reliance on investments from the Chinese. This warning comes after news of the Philippine government’s plans for its “Build, Build, Build” programs is tied to reliance on foreign loans and aid.
Carpio expounded on this after a student raised the possibility of the Philippines following in the footsteps of Sri Lanka as a potential victim of China’s debt-trap diplomacy. In 2017, the South Asian island state signed a 99 year-long contract with China to renovate and operate the Hambantota water port, which gives them access to key shipping routes in the Indian Ocean. Critics around the world have grown wary of China’s new strategy, which involves offering large loans with high interest rates to developing nations like Sri Lanka and the Philippines. They then utilize this as leverage to establish further deals to their favor and gain significant regional access. Their hold on the borrowing state grows stronger if the latter is unable to pay back the borrowed money within a specified time frame.
Another point raised during the Q&A portion of the talk centered on existing policies about foreign research. While Carpio conceded that collaborations with foreign researchers may be pursued once the necessary permits are granted, he reiterated the need for the research findings to be shared and made available once the project is accomplished. The now-acting Chief Justice is also of the opinion that the permit granted to the Chinese team should not have been given in the first place.
Article 246 of UNCLOS states that: “Coastal States shall, in normal circumstances, grant their consent for marine scientific research projects by other States.” Carpio argues that China’s refusal to acknowledge the tribunal results procured in accordance with UNCLOS and selective compliance with the regulations stipulated in UNCLOS despite ratifying it certainly shows that the two countries are not in a state of “normal circumstances.”
As stated during the event, the views and opinions of Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio are personal and do not represent those of the Philippine government as a whole.