by Earlie Doriman
|The Spratly Group of Islands |
(photo from economicroadmap.com)
The Long-Term Dispute
What legal rights do the Philippines have over the Spratlys? The first official representation of the Philippines in the disputed islands of Spratly was in 1933, when a Filipino senator protested France, as the European colonizer asserted its 1887 ownership of the coral reef-rich areas of Paracels and Spratlys. This protest went into parliamentary discussions but the U.S. government did not pay serious interest to the claim. The Philippines being a colony of America at that time was unable to put forward documentation of events, nevertheless the action provided historical basis of an earliest declaration of ownership. This fact was overlooked by both Vietnam and China who made claims of the same group of islands immediately after that time (Chen,1979)
It can be noted that numerous European sailors including Richard Spratly ( to which the name is obviously taken from) surveyed and occupied Spratlys and the rest of the closer islands around. But their interests did not last long. It was however being re-claimed in 1933 on behalf of the French colony Vietnam but was confronted with protest from the Philippines. So, it was not only after the Second World War that the Philippines declared interest of the Spratlys as suggested by China.
At the onset of World War II, Japan occupied these areas and made it its military base but surrendered back the islands when the Japanese were defeated during that war in 1945. The defeated imperial government of Japan relinquished its rights over the Spratlys by virtue of the Peace Treaty in San Francisco that thus expressed, “Japan renounces all right, title, and claim to the Spratly Islands, Pratas, and to the Paracel Islands”.
The Philippines through the newly formed government of President Elpidio Quirino claimed again the territories in 1946. And in 1947, the Philippine Secretary of Foreign Affairs declared that the Spratly group of Islands, then called ‘ New Southern Islands’, were part of the Philippine territory. Although the Republic of China took control of the biggest and the only habitable island called Itu Aba after the WW II, it eventually abandoned their claim in 1949 after the end of China’s Civil war that gave birth to People’s Republic of China. The Republic of China re-claimed Itu Aba Island (Taiping Dao according China) in 1956 and allegedly established base at the island only after Tomas Cloma announced and issued ‘proclamation to the world’.
As China’s claim resurfaced, it included in its arguments the myths and maps of the old Chinese civilization, which accordingly considered these groups of islands within their national boundaries. China’s claim therefore is not substantial but merely relied on historical and mythical grounds, which are as ambiguous as the Chinese legends. It suggested in 1951 that Spratlys and Paracels must be considered to be outposts of Chinese National territory because of some ancient Chinese pottery and coins found therein, and in 1958 the People’s Republic of China issued a declaration defining its territorial boundaries which included the Spratlys. But their territorial claim was refuted in 1990 saying that the discoveries of Chinese ceramics and ancient coins were not valid basis to the ownership of the islands, but would probably indicate that there were trade relations in the past between China and Southeast Asia.
What Grounds Do We Have?
Ferdinand E. Marcos
On the basis of geography and history, Ferdinand Marcos in 1978 issued a presidential decree declaring the entire Spratlys as part of the Philippine territory by virtue of its proximity and archipelagic baselines; and that; “they do not belong to any state or nation, but by reason of history; indispensable need, and effective occupation and control established in accordance with international law”. Furthermore, the claim is reiterated by President Fidel Ramos during his term stating in toto: “ I would like to clarify that the Philippines does not only claim eight islands in the Spratlys but owns all islands and waters in the Spratlys as defined in the presidential decree issued by former President Marcos”.
Fidel V. Ramos
Bullying and Harassment by China
So China thought this is the best way to scare away weaker nations. Whilst China is presently considered a massive military power, it continues to increase and modernize its military force by developing more technologically advanced and powerful weaponry. Is China deliberately using a more bullying and intimidating strategy? The double digit incremental in China’s military spending this year at 12.7 percent is a suspicious attempt to strengthen their national defence, which definitely emphasized safeguarding sovereignty, security and development interests. Is invading the Spratlys amongst these development interests and sovereignty issues?
Although China has expressed peaceful solution and negotiations to settle the Spratly dispute, their recent actions provide a different colour. The current tension they initiated within these islands could be classified as harassment and exploitation against other claimants including the Philippines and Vietnam, which honestly do not have the military capability to defend their respective installations if China would indeed resort to a forceful exploit.
Why is Spratlys so important to China now? There are obviously two logical motives. Firstly, the People’s Republic of China discovered in 1968 that huge reserves of oil and natural gas could be extracted from these islands and the massive product of commercial fishing. Secondly, Spratlys is an ideal location for China to put up its surveillance installations to observe naval vessels travelling through the expanse of West Philippine Sea (South China Sea). These interests are very significant to China’s monster economy and military power. These are the same reasons why it has deliberately use intimidation and threats to other countries pursuing sovereignty and economic interests in Spratlys.
Since the early part of 1970’s, China had been using force against smaller countries that maintained interest over the Spratlys and Paracels. In 1974, the People’s Republic of China forcibly took over the Paracels from Vietnam. Sometime in 1988, Chinese navy fired and sank Vietnamese transport boats. In 1995, the Philippines protested against Chinese attempt to occupy the Mischief Reef, an island very close to Palawan. How many hundreds of Filipino fishermen were being arrested and jailed by China because of illegal fishing. Due to these conflicts, the Association of Southeast Asian Nation (ASEAN) came to an agreement to inform each member country any military activities in the Spratlys and Paracels, and construction of any structure was banned. This accord was immediately violated by China as it silently continued annexing parts of the islands.
Conflicts have at least calmed down a bit in the past few years but in the recent weeks China spurred a new round of trouble when couple of Chinese naval ships stalked Philippine ships around the islands of Spratly. Not only that, the Philippine Air Force planes monitoring the area have been threatened by Chinese fighting jets. This led the Philippines to bring the matter to the United Nations attention. Last month, Chinese naval vessels opened fire at four Vietnamese fishing boats operating within the region of Spratlys and Paracels. These actions by China constituted gross bullying and harassment, which obviously impair agreements on peaceful resolve to which China vowed to cooperate. The Tripartite agreement signed by three nations namely China, Vietnam and The Philippines which was also aimed at developing cooperation between these nations towards development, stability, and peaceful undertaking in the Spratlys, was in many occasions violated by China.
It is with deep uncertainty that international intervention could help appease the situation, but the Filipino people sincerely believe that peaceful means to settle the dispute is still the best option on the table. As long as it can, the Philippines has to continue to stand and fight what legally belongs to it and the Filipinos must support what it deemed right for the country. As the entire world calls for the pleasant resolution of the Spratly conflict, China must stop its harassment and bullying towards weaker nations and become earnest if they truly desire to a peaceful settlement.
2. King C. Chen, China’s War with Vietnam, 1979 pp.4344
3. Historical Evidence to Support China’s Sovereignty Over Nansha Islands.
4. Hurwitt, Mara C. “U.S Strategy in Southeast Asia: The Spratly Island Dispute”.
5. Kathrina Alvarez @ Sunnex
6. Abelgas Val G. “ Spratlys; Where Does Aquino Stands”.
11. Palatino, Mong; “The Spratlys and the Philippine Claim”