The fundamental architecture of international law, that all the seas and oceans belonged to mankind, is derived from Hugo Grotius’ Mare Liberum, however, China thinks otherwise. The world superpower invokes historical rights in its claim to the West Philippine Sea (WPS), and their arguments are moot. The controversial Nine-Dash Line naval “canon” was first seen in a 1947 map produced by the Chinese government; this became the bedrock of their argument in claiming the WPS. However, its questionable provenance does not only amplify its lack of legal basis but the inconsistent number of the dashed lines—from 11 to nine to 10—underscores its dubiousness.
Additionally, the Philippines and China are signatories to the United Nations Convention for the Law of the Sea, which determines that coastal states have the sovereign rights for the 200 nautical miles beyond their coasts to explore and exploit their living and non-living resources. But China insists that their historical right trumps the law they are a signatory to. It seems like the law is only applicable to them whenever it is convenient.
It’s almost been five years since the Permanent Court of Arbitration has ruled in favor of the Philippines against China over our seas. More specifically, it’s been years since President Duterte did anything beneficially impactful to the WPS. Granted that the issue is marred with complex political implications, his non-existent policy and inaction plan will cost the future of the Philippines. But in the words of Presidential Spokesperson and former international law professor Harry Roque, Duterte’s policy concerning the WPS is “careful, calibrated, and calculated.” Despite the legal clarity, the government’s inaction allows China to continue its illegal activities.
The area is rich in maritime resources, oils, and gases. According to Robert Kaplan’s book, Asia’s Cauldron, the WPS has a tenth of the global fish catch. Additionally, there are approximately 7 billion barrels of oil beneath the area. While there are claims that there are 130 billion barrels, the economic implications of the area could secure the posterity of our country. Does the government understand this?
Further, the area is strategically located on a maritime highway that is valuable to any country with access to it. Securing this area could position the Philippines and its allies at an advantage for trade and military purposes.
In 2016, the President claimed that he will ride a jetski to the man-made islands of China—to claim what is ours. But recently, he explained that it was purely a campaign joke—just like most of his campaign promises. I am not hopeful that the current administration will do anything about the WPS, anything beneficial at least. But I hope this seals the deal for all of us, that more than bravado during campaigns, we need someone who can act for the interests of the country.
The government—or the future government leaders—must see that the economic and security implications of the WPS must be taken seriously. We cannot afford to dilly-dally our position on this issue especially when we have a legal basis for our claim.