A PESO WORTH OF SPECKS, AN OCEAN OF TROUBLE

Vir B. Lumicao

PRESIDENT Benigno Aquino III, may be red-faced now after, in a show of bravado during his State of the Nation address on July 25, he erroneously referred to Recto Bank (or Reed Bank) in the South China Sea as part of Philippine territory.

The truth is Recto Bank is not ours, according to the Malaya Business Insight, pointing out the factual error in an editorial on Wednesday. The respected newspaper clarified that the geological formation which is part of the “Pag-asa Group of Islands is not and has never been part of Philippine territory.”

The Malaya said the Philippines bases its claim to the island on the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, which vests coastal states sovereign rights to a 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zone to explore and exploit as well as conserve and manage the natural resources that lie therein.

The newspaper said that, first, the Recto Bank is not inside the territorial limit delineated in the Treaty of Paris of December 10, 1898, under which Spain ceded the Philippines to the United States. Secondly, while the Recto Bank is included in the Pag-asa island group that Manila claims by right of discovery and occupation, “the Baseline Act of 2009 which formalizes this is now under question before the Supreme Court for being unconstitutional.”

So, it appears Aquino’s saber-rattling is embarrassingly baseless.

***

In fact, the newspaper also got it wrong when it referred to that part of the bigger Spratly Islands group as Pag-asa Group of Islands. It could be alluding to the Kalayaan group of nine islands, atolls and shoals that forms the area being claimed by the Philippines and which the government has made into the municipality of Kalayaan in Palawan province  to strengthen its claim. Pag-asa, at 37.2 hectares the biggest island in the group with about 220 civilian residents, is the seat of the municipal government led by a civilian mayor.

Pag-asa is the second-biggest island in the 200-island Spratlys archipelago over which, partly or wholly, six countries including the Philippines are claiming sovereignty. Pag-asa island is called Zhōngyè Dǎo in traditional Chinese and Đảo Thị Tứ in Vietnamese. It lies about 483 km west of Puerto Princesa City, the capital of Palawan. The other claimants of the Spratlys are Brunei, China, Malaysia, Taiwan, and Vietnam.

***

Even before last Wednesday’s visit by four Filipino lawmakers to Pag-asa island in the Spratlys “to affirm Philippine sovereignty” on the disputed islands, China had reacted angrily to news of the forthcoming trip, saying that such an act would be an “encroachment” of its sovereignty.  The lawmakers headed by Rep. Walden Bello upped the ante by planting a Philippine flag on Pag-asa to assert Philippine sovereignty, and were set to do the same symbolic gesture on Recto Bank.

The congressmen’s gesture was actually a chapter in the simmering dispute between the Philippines and China over what are virtual specks in the South China Sea. Manila media have reported some alleged incidents of Chinese bullying in the Spratlys over recent months. These include a reported firing by China’s naval vessels on Filipino fishing boats that sailed into the area in February, followed by the alleged harassment of a  Philippine exploration ship in March.

***

The incidents have irked Manila, prompting the government to lodge diplomatic protests with Beijing and threaten to take the dispute to a United Nations court. China’s ambassador to Manila, Liu Jianchao, has denied the reported firing on Filipino fishermen, saying in a roundtable meeting with journalists that it was fiction written by Manila’s “biased media.” He said the action that China’s navy took against the exploration ship in March was simply an exercise to affirm its jurisdiction over the area.

Ambassador Liu, meanwhile, told the United States not to intervene in the Spratlys squabble, as despite its concern for the peace, security and stability of the region, “the route has always been safe, peaceful, and free.” Besides, he said the US is not claiming any of the disputed islands or reefs. He also rebuffed Manila’s threat to take dispute to the United Nations, saying China did not violate any UN convention and that actions taken by Beijing in the contested area took place “within sovereignty of China.”

***
How part of the Spratlys, or the Kalayaan group of islands, became Philippine territory came by accident, its existence being quite a recent discovery. One account says that in 1947, Tomas Cloma, a Filipino adventurer and owner of a fishing vessel company, discovered a group of uninhabited specks of land and reefs in the South China Sea.

On May 11, 1956, Cloma and his brother Filemon gathered 40 of his crew, took possession of the islands, and named the cluster “Freedomland.” Four days later, Cloma issued and posted copies of his “Notice to the Whole World” on each of the islands to formalize his claim to the territory. At the end of that month, Cloma declared the establishment of the Free Territory of Freedomland, 10 days after sending his second representation to the Philippine secretary of foreign affairs, informing the official that the territory is now part of the Philippines.

***

Cloma went further, the account says. “On July 6, 1956, Cloma declared to the world his claim and the establishment of a separate government for the Free Territory of Freedomland with its capital on Patag Island. His declaration was met with violent and unfriendly reactions from several neighboring countries, especially the Republic of China (ROC; on Taiwan since 1949), (which) on September 24, 1956 … effectively garrisoned the nearby island of Itu Aba and intercepted Cloma’s men and vessels found within its immediate waters. Unable to surmount the difficulties and pressure, he ceded his claim to the Philippines for one peso.”

Another account, which identifies Cloma as a director of the Philippine Maritime Institute, says his claim comprises about 50 features or outcrops in the Spratly group. It says among the countries that protested his declaration were France, the United Kingdom, and the Netherlands, in behalf of their colonies in Southeast Asia. While the Philippines did not endorse the new state to the world, it acknowledged Freedomland as the true sovereign state, the account says.

Now, after paying a peso for the contested specks in the South China Sea, the Philippines seems to have bought an oceanful of trouble.

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