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Bickering Over The Spratlys

April 6, 2008

They are a sprinkling of some 200 or so islets and atolls in the South China Sea, Western Palawan waters or Eastern Vietnam Sea, depending on which of the primary claimant countries is talking and this mini archipelago is potentially either the richest untapped source of black gold this side of the world or the percolating flash point that could engulf Southeast Asia in a shooting war in the extreme, or in a global territorial case needing adjudication at the level of the United Nations.

The Spratlys issue came to the fore in recent weeks in the wake of the recent article written by Barry Wain a journalist and scholar at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore and former editor of the Asian Wall Street Journal who revealed that a trilateral agreement forged by the state petroleum companies of the Philippines, Vietnam and China “to conduct joint seismic studies set back regional cooperative efforts to coax Beijing into a more measured stance” in the overlapping territorial claims for ownership of the Spratlys.”

Wain recounts that “Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s hurried trip to China in late 2004 produced a major surprise. Among the raft of agreements ceremoniously signed by the two countries was one providing for their national oil companies to conduct a joint seismic study in the contentious South China Sea, a prospect that caused consternation in parts of Southeast Asia. Within six months, however, Vietnam, the harshest critic, dropped its objections and joined the venture, which went ahead on a tripartite basis and shrouded in secrecy.”

The January Far East Economic Review (FEER) report goes on to observe that while ” the concept of joint development of the area ‘s fish, hydrocarbon and other resources may be the template for “solving complex territorial and jurisdictional disputes” what is glaring is “the absence of consultations” with the other claimant nations.

Wain further pointed out “But as details of the undertaking emerge, it is beginning to look like anything but the way to go.” For a start, the “Philippine government has broken ranks with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which was dealing with China as a bloc on the South China Sea issue. The Philippines also has made breathtaking concessions in agreeing to the area for study, including parts of its own continental shelf not even claimed by China and Vietnam. Through its actions, Manila has given a certain legitimacy to China’s legally spurious “historic claim” to most of the South China Sea.”

The Wain report set off a flurry of denunciations from the Philippine political opposition, and even historians, academicians and legal experts that “a treasonous act” may have been committed,” with the Philippines’ own claim to what it refers to as the Kalayaan Island Group (KIG) having been “compromised.”

The Philippine claim is primarily anchored on the 1948-1949 ‘discovery’ of KIG by Tomas Cloma, the founder of the Philippine Maritime Institute, not the Philippine Nautical School as we earlier reported. (Our thanks to the alumni of the PMI who called our attention to clarify this.)

As his heirs recount it, ‘Admiral’ (an honorary, non-military title accorded the father of maritime education in the Philippines) Cloma, “was in search of better fishing grounds west of Palawan when, in command of the PNS training ship T/S Dagohoy, he ‘discovered’ the Kalayaan islands” which he forthwith christened, and claimed as Freedomland.

Cloma in those heady, post World War II years, went on to issue “a Notice To The World” that Freedomland was being established as an independent ‘Principality’ under the protection of the Republic of the Philippines, and clothed with recognition even from the Vatican.

In the Years that followed, Cloma was to make further ‘voyages of discovery’ to the Kalayaan Islands, having assigned Filipino names to the major islets. Significantly in the period between 1956 and 1960, Cloma was received in the highest echelons of government at that time, even given ‘send-off’ reception for a 1956 expedition. During martial law, in 1972, Cloma, apparently facing pressure from President Marcos, ‘voluntarily’ ceded his claim to Freedomland for the sum of One Peso, and the Philippines from hereon took on the mantle of being one of the six claimant countries.

Drawing a clear picture of the disputed area, Barry Wain’s piece reminds the world that the Paracel Islands in the northwest are claimed by China and Vietnam, while the Spratly Islands in the south are claimed in part or entirety by China, Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei. All but Brunei, whose claim is limited to an exclusive economic zone and a continental shelf that overlap those of its neighbors, man military garrisons in the scattered islets, cays and rocks of the Spratlys. After extensive Chinese structures were discovered in 1995 on Mischief Reef, on the Philippine continental shelf and well within the Philippine 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone, Asean persuaded Beijing to drop its resistance to the “internationalization” of the South China Sea issue. Instead of insisting on only bilateral discussions with claimant states, China agreed to deal with Asean as a group on the matter. Filipino diplomat, Rodolfo Severino, a former secretary-general of Asean, has lauded “Asean solidarity and cooperation in a matter of vital security concern.”

The report goes on to recount that Asean and China have “failed” to negotiate a code of conduct among the claimant nations. This despite a non-binding “Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea,” signed in 2002. At that time, the countries ” pledged to settle territorial disagreements peacefully and to exercise restraint in activities that could spark conflict.”

The FEER report goes on to observe, accurately, that “since the issuance of the declaration, a tenuous stability has descended on the South China Sea. With Asean countries benefiting from China’s booming economy, boosted by a free-trade agreement, Southeast Asian political leaders are happy to forget about this particular set of problems that once bedeviled their relations with Beijing.

“Yet none of the multifaceted disputes has been resolved, and no mechanism exists to prevent or manage conflicts. With no plans to discuss even the sovereignty of contested islands, claimants now accept that it will be decades, perhaps generations, before the tangled claims are reconciled.

“Recent incidents and skirmishes are a sharp reminder of how dangerous the situation remains. In the middle of last year, Chinese naval vessels fired on Vietnamese fishing boats near the Paracels, killing one fisherman and wounding six others, while British giant BP halted work associated with a gas pipeline off the Vietnamese coast after a warning by the Chinese Foreign Ministry. In the past few months, Beijing and Hanoi have traded denunciations as the Chinese, in particular, maneuver to reinforce territorial claims. Vietnam protested when China conducted a large naval exercise around the Paracels in November.”

Particularly telling is the observation by Wain, with the view apparently shared by many observers is that the Philippines “by not consulting other Asean members beforehand, has abandoned the collective stance that was key to the group’s success with China over the South China Sea.”


Quite a number of Filipino scholars have since observed that the joint seismic research project could actually be construed as pre-exploration activities, and as such, the findings of which should be made public. There are also loud questions as to whether the accommodations given to China by the Philippines are ‘tied’ to the recent multi-billion-dollar loan packages inked by the two countries.

Even today, key details of the agreement have not been revealed, including the annex which delineates the agreement area, meaning the prospective, if not actual ‘zone of joint exploration’, given that the over 188,000 square-kilometer area would ‘eat into’ the other areas also claimed by other countries as being within their continental shelves and 200-mile exclusive economic zone. There is also the matter of the Philippines being seen as ‘playing the China card’ in its relations with the United States.

The situation in the South China Sea is, without doubt, a powder keg and absent clarification, and candidness, from all parties, could very well compromise amity in Southeast Asia, not to mention the economic, and military reality that Manila has the least ‘muscle’ among the would be protagonists, should a full blown conflict erupt.

For now the waiting game continues.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. April 28, 2008 2:18 pm

    Correction please :

    The revered Admiral Tomas Cloma was the founder of the Philippine Maritime Institute (PMI) NOT the Philippine Nautical School (PNS). T/S “Dagohoy being one of the training ships of PMI.


  1. China Rattles Its Naval Saber In The Spratlys « At Midfield

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